Hard road for NZ's asylum seekers

New Zealand is barely meeting its international obligations to asylum seekers, who have severely limited access to support services creating a highly vulnerable and nearly invisible population open to exploitation, according to new research.

New Zealand receives two types of refugees. Each year about 750 are settled as part of the UN refugee quota and about 100 who claim asylum and are granted refugee status. Both sets are considered equal under the UN Refugee Convention.

However, while quota refugees are given significant assistance and social support, asylum seekers have access to only a small range of social services and receive almost no support in settling into their new home, a report by ChangeMakers Refugee Forum and the National Refugee Network says.

The study interviewed 18 asylum seekers granted refugee status and also service staff who work with refugees about their ability to participate in New Zealand life. It said asylum seekers arriving in New Zealand are subject to social and systemic discrimination, receive little information from officials, face long periods of waiting and uncertainty, and if granted refugee status struggle to access housing, welfare, education, English language support and employment.

At the same time quota refugees are given access to Red Cross services that provide trained volunteers and social workers, who offer free English language lessons. They are also entitled to housing, education, and social benefits.

"As a country we provide a very basic level of support for people claiming asylum. 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 asylum seekers who participated in the study spoke of being made to wait at airports for days, being told to approach taxi drivers who looked like they were from the same country for advice and being separated from their family. Some were detained in Mt Eden prison with significant effects on their mental health and general wellbeing, according to the report.

Staff from agencies working with asylum seekers said they lacked the funding and support to help asylum seekers understand, access and use even the limited resources like public health care they were entitled to.

Without that, they were often vulnerable, isolated, largely invisible unless they were receiving negative attention from media and politicians, the report said.

"There is this mythical idea of an orderly queue of refugees who are being well behaved and fulfilling the due process, and on the other side we have this idea of asylum seekers being renegades who are jumping the queue," Bloom said.

This leaves asylum seekers open to exploitation from people within their own communities and discrimination by the public as they are portrayed negatively by the media and politicians, the report said.

The Government appeared to have intentionally created a lower class of refugee in attempt to deter refugees from coming to New Zealand, Bloom said.

"The last thing NZ wants to do is present a front that shows a welcomingness to asylum seekers. The Government was quite clear that the Mass Arrivals Bill was about bringing in policies of deterrence," she said.

The report recommends a series of changes to help asylum seekers assimilate into their new lives in New Zealand, the minimum being that they receive the same entitlements as quota refugees.

The report will be considered by the Government, which spends more than $50 million a year on quota refugee resettlement support.

"It is in the interest of both refugees and New Zealand generally to raise the success of refugee resettlement and help refugees adapt to life in New Zealand as quickly as possible," said a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse.