Nelson 'a model' for refugee support

A national campaign to increase New Zealand's services to refugees has gained support in Nelson, which is home to about 400 refugees.

The Wellington-based coordinator of doingourbit.co.nz, Murdoch Stephens, is lobbying the Government to double New Zealand's intake of refugees and the funding to help them.

Nelson is one of six areas that takes resettlement refugees from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Of the current New Zealand quota of 750 a year, Nelson takes between 10 and 12 per cent.

There is additional capacity for another 250 refugees to come to New Zealand through the family support category, where refugees already in New Zealand can bring in family members who they are financially responsible for.

Mr Stephens said he believed Nelson was "doing its bit", and other metropolitan areas could step up and use it as a model.

Currently, refugees are settled in Auckland, Waikato, Manawatu, Wellington and Nelson.

"Nelson is doing well in the sense that it shows there is the capacity to take more," Mr Stephens said.

"It shows we have the capacity in other areas of New Zealand, like Palmerston North or Tauranga, to do as much as Nelson. We could increase the quota and it would have no effect on Nelson."

Mr Stephens held an exhibition in Porirua last year of hundreds of photos he found of Afghans in an abandoned refugee camp in Iran. He did not know what had happened to the people but "wanted to honour them".

He has since dedicated his time to campaigning to double New Zealand's refugee quota and the funding for refugee services. So far, he has met five Labour MPs and Green MP Jan Logie. He has also been using social media to raise awareness of the campaign.

He said he hoped political parties would include the campaign's goals in their policies before the election.

He was particularly concerned about Syrian refugees, and wanted to see them welcomed to New Zealand.

Nelson Refugee Services manager Gabrielle Humphreys said there were more than 20 million refugees in the world, and it would be good if New Zealand could take more.

Refugee Services resettles refugees who come to the country under the arrangement the Government has with the UNHCR. It became part of the Red Cross in December 2010.

The UNHCR responds to different crises around the world, and Ms Humphreys said she expected the next focus would be on resettling Syrian refugees.

She said resettlement was a "complex process".

The Government pays refugees' airfares and the costs for them to spend six weeks at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre in Auckland, where receive an orientation to New Zealand life, learning English and other skills. All adult refugees receive Job Seeker Support until they find work.

"That can take a long time," Ms Humphreys said. "People are very keen to work but they are usually on the bottom rung when it comes to being employable because of lack of English, work skills and New Zealand work experience.

"When Burmese refugees [from Myanmar] come to Nelson, many will work like mad to send money back to family in Malaysia, who are waiting for resettlement."

Nelson has received about 400 refugees from Myanmar over the past 10 years. The country is now reaching political stability, and Ms Humphreys said she expected the number of Burmese refugees to fall this year.

"UNHCR will shift the focus to somewhere else, most likely Syria, though it is not a given they will come to New Zealand."

She said Refugee Services liked to build on established former refugee communities as new people arrived, rather than just "drop people in and hope for the best".

There had been Burmese in Nelson since the 1980s, so Immigration New Zealand - part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment - wanted to build on the community that was already established here.

"We are lucky in Nelson. It is a great settlement area, with opportunities for employment on the orchards, market gardens and the fishing industry. A lot of people are in work here."

Ms Humphreys said funding for Refugee Services' work was limited. It relied on the goodwill of volunteers to help resettle refugees in Nelson.

"We are good at managing on a shoestring. We work with volunteers - if we didn't have them, we couldn't do it. They are wonderful."

She said Refugee Services was going through changes, as last year the ministry had put settlement services out for tender. Refugee Services has put forward a proposal which has meant all processes and services have had to be reassessed.

Refugee Services Nelson volunteer Annie Mackenzie said she believed New Zealand could take more refugees.

She said she had volunteered to resettle two families, one Burmese, the other Bhutanese. She loved the experience, and helped the families deal with Work and Income and health services.

"I wanted to do something that would make a difference to individual lives."

She said she found the support from Nelson Refugee Services "really fantastic", and said the Nelson community was generally supportive of refugees.

Nelson MP Nick Smith said he was "very proud" of Nelson's response to refugees in the area, and believed that refugees coming here received better support than in any other part of New Zealand. However, the Government did not support increasing the quota.

Dr Smith said he would rather see increased support for refugee resettlement services in Nelson, but this was not a priority at the moment.

"New Zealand has its own challenges and disadvantaged families. New Zealand is doing its fair share."

Nelson-based Labour list MP Maryan Street disagreed with Dr Smith. She said she had met with campaigners from doingourbit.co.nz and said supported what they were doing.

Ms Street said that as Labour's associate spokesperson on foreign affairs, she would be announcing plans later this year that would address some of the campaigners' issues. She was especially concerned about funding for refugee resettlement groups.

She felt the Government had "a real problem in the way it addresses the needs of refugees and asylum seekers. I think New Zealand can do a lot more than we are doing".

"I think we have the capacity in New Zealand to absorb more refugees and asylum seekers.

"Nelson could be a model, though to be a model we need more funding for refugee and migrant services."

Nelson