Refugee report identifies key issues

ANNA PEARSON
Last updated 13:00 24/11/2012

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A report providing a snapshot of how life is for former refugees in Nelson has revealed a significant gap in mental health services and concerns around alcohol misuse and family violence.

The report was prepared by Brigid Ryan from Settling In, a community-based Ministry of Social Development initiative.

Ms Ryan's research for Settling In: Refugees in Nelson involved focus groups with 139 former refugees, from Burmese Zomi, Burmese Kayan, Burmese Chin, Bhutanese Nepali and Khmer Krom backgrounds, as well as agencies and services that work alongside them.

The report identified key issues for former refugees in Nelson, including undiagnosed or untreated health concerns; a significant gap in mental health services; and increasing pressure on Nelson as a settlement area now that refugees are no longer being sent to Christchurch.

There were also safety and security concerns, particularly around alcohol misuse and family violence, and a need for sustainable, quality interpreting services, the report said.

Refugees have been settling in Nelson since the 1970s, and there are about 750 former refugees and family members living here.

They are supported by Refugee Services for the first six months, after six weeks at the Refugee Resettlement Centre in Auckland.

The report identified challenges arising after the intensive, targeted Refugee Services assistance period, such as significant mental health issues.

Mental health services for former refugees are well established in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington, but there are no services covering Palmerston North, Hamilton and Nelson.

Refugee Services said it was well documented that many refugees did not seek help for extreme trauma-related problems, including from experiences such as rape and torture, until a few years after their arrival.

"This is often because it is only then that they are settled enough to address these problems, or a re-traumatisation has triggered the need for a referral."

One former refugee said: "I remember the bad things that happened to me, and don't sleep well."

Another said: "I had a bomb thrown at my head when I was in my country. I have not been well since then."

Ms Ryan said the response from the Nelson Marlborough District Health Board and the Nelson Bays Primary Health Organisation to the report had been fantastic.

"People didn't really appreciate how big the problem was. We know that there are people in this community who have experienced torture or extreme trauma, which is why they had to leave their country."

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Nelson Multicultural Council co-ordinator Evey McAuliffe said the DHB received a plea, before the report was published, to set aside funding for counsellors to be trained in treating the "very specific mental health issues" that affected former refugees.

"Every refugee is a traumatised person. People have suffered terrible things that we have no experience of. There are counsellors here who are really eager to help and receive that kind of training."

The report said alcohol abuse and drink-driving problems arose due to experimentation, the manifestation of wealth - having money to buy a car and alcohol - and as a symptom of trauma.

The ethnic liaison officer for Nelson police said 90 per cent of his work related to drink-driving and family violence, and mental health service providers said work with high and complex needs clients was primarily around family violence and alcohol abuse.

Former refugees were frequently being referred to alcohol and drug courses by social service providers, and the court system was handing out heavier sentences than a couple of years ago, due to the recidivist nature of drink-driving.

The report also said that language barriers made life hard for former refugees, in not being able to access services as well as employment.

"Former refugees with little English, limited work experience and years of life in a refugee camp face enormous challenges getting jobs, particularly in tough financial times. Focus groups with local former refugees confirm that finding employment is often very difficult, and that this impacts on them in a number of ways - it lowers their confidence and self-esteem, and it makes it difficult for them to meet new people, practise their English and improve their standard of living."

A number of former refugees had paid work, however, mostly in horticulture, viticulture, seafood processing, supermarkets, and social service organisations that dealt with newcomers.

Work and Income figures showed former refugees made up 7.3 per cent of the registered unemployment figure for Nelson and Richmond at the end of May this year; 46 people out of 629.

Ms McAuliffe said Settling In: Refugees in Nelson had strengthened the connections between all the agencies that helped former refugees, and would help with funding applications.

"The communities themselves are working really hard to improve their situation . . . They are being very active in improving their lot. There are people with needs, but there are people with resilience as well."

- The Nelson Mail

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