Scant help for refugees

SIMON DAY
Last updated 05:00 22/12/2013
Kafeba Mundele
CHRIS SKELTON/Fairfax NZ

KAFEBA MUNDELE: 'I want to work, I want to contribute, I want to say thank you to this country . . . but the doors are not open to me.’

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Kafeba Mundele fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo to escape persecution and violence. When he arrived in New Zealand he found oppression of a different kind.

He didn't speak English, he had no money, nowhere to stay and he soon discovered there was no one to help him. He was on his own.

"There was no one at all that could help or guide or tell me where to go. The first days were really rough," Mundele said.

When he arrived in 1996, Mundele had a brochure listing all the churches in New Zealand. Every day he would call down the list and, speaking French, ask for help. One day a church in West Auckland agreed to take him in.

His wife and newborn son were still in Congo, where advancing rebel troops made the situation even more dangerous. The congregation found him accommodation and paid for a plane ticket for his wife and son. They escaped Congo the day the rebels took the capital, Kinshasa.

By arriving as an asylum seeker and granted a place in New Zealand under the United Nations refugee convention, Mundele became part of New Zealand's refugee underclass, excluded from benefits and support given to those resettled here under the UN's high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) quota.

Almost 90 per cent of New Zealand's refugees arrive under UNHCR quota. But those who arrive independently seeking asylum find limited information and assistance, long periods of uncertainty, and struggle to access healthcare, housing, Work and Income and employment, according to a report released this month.

Annually the New Zealand government accepts 750 refugees under the UNHCR quota. On arrival they are granted permanent residence, receive a six-week orientation course at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre and the support of the Red Cross refugee services. They have access to free English classes, interpreters and support staff for an annual government investment of around $50 million.

Around 100 asylum seekers are granted refugee status each year. They receive access to social services and health care, but little information on resettlement.

"I've had people come to me and ask how do you make a doctor's appointment in NZ? How do you buy a house in NZ? And no one tells you that sort of stuff. They are things we all take for granted," said Peter Dunne, leader of the UnitedFuture Party which absorbed the Ethnic Minority Party.

Many asylum seekers travel on false documents that are discarded en route or declared on arrival. They will often be detained, some in prison, while their security risk is assessed and may be "conditionally released" into the community. But they must live in an agreed location and report periodically to the authorities while they await the outcome of their application for refugee status. They have limited access to basic social entitlements and cannot be granted temporary work permits.

Around 75 per cent of asylum cases are cleared within 140 days. The majority are declined. Other applications take much longer.

It took seven years for the Mundele family to receive refugee status, and nine to get their residency.

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Without access to any government support the family relied on the charity of the church for housing and food. They lived off donated food.

Mundele has an arts degree and an education degree from the Congo. He worked hard to learn English quickly. But for years he couldn't find more than menial work.

He retrained in New Zealand completing a theological degree and postgraduate certificate in social practice at Unitech. Still employment is hard to find and he thinks it's because he's an African asylum seeker.

"I want to feel proud. In the morning I want I leave my home, kiss my family and I go to work and I come back in the afternoon and I bring bread on the table for my family. And I can't do that. That shame, that feeling of helplessness is so intense," Mundele said.

This differential treatment of the two groups of refugees leaves asylum seekers neglected, vulnerable to exploitation and open to discrimination, according to the report by ChangeMakers Refugee Forum and the National Refugee Network.

"The criteria by which you are being assessed is the refugee convention, and there is no distinction according to our human rights obligations but there is a huge distinction in terms of the services that quota refugees get in comparison to asylum seekers," said Alia Bloom research co-ordinator at ChangeMakers.

The researchers heard stories of refugees living out of cars, forced to work as strippers, being told to find taxi drivers of the same ethnicity for help, and asylum seekers being detained alongside convicted criminals in prisons.

Despite coming from the same background, the same suffering and often the same camps, asylum seekers are disadvantaged simply because they chose an alternative, though legitimate, way to escape persecution, Mundele said.

"We are all running from the same thing. Once we come here, whether we are asylum seekers or quota refugees, we are all refugees and it is not fair for us to be treated differently," he said.

In June the government tightened controls on asylum seekers taking refuge in New Zealand, hoping to discourage people smugglers. The Immigration (Mass Arrivals) Amendment Bill provides for the detention of groups of 30 or more, restricts family resettlement and requires reassessments of refugee status. By attempting to discourage asylum seekers the government creates a negative perception of the group, the report said. And asylum seekers granted refugee status are highly aware of labels like "queue jumpers" and "illegal".

"It is easy for some people to come up with those names because they haven't experienced hardship. They haven't experienced the sound of AK47s. Once you have been there, everything you can do to get out is possible," said Mundele.

The government celebrates its approach to resettlement under the UNHCR quota. But of the world's 45 million refugees, the highest number since the Rwandan genocide in 1994, only 80,000 find refuge through the quota.

Last December the government launched the Refugee Resettlement Strategy, which hopes to improve outcomes for refugees arriving in New Zealand but for now it covers only those taken under the quota.

Refugees who arrived seeking asylum continue to struggle.

"I want to work, I want to contribute, I want to say thank you to this country for welcoming me, but the doors are not open to me," Mundele said.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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