OPINION: Nelson has been providing a safe haven for refugees for 40 years under various government policies - though, of course, displaced people from other lands have been settling here for far longer. We now host just on 770 refugees and their families, more than half of them Chin or Burmese. It is natural to assume that they will count themselves lucky to be here and in a position to live far better lives than in their places of birth.
However, a report just out raises a few key issues that are helping to prevent some from making the most of their opportunities here. Anyone who has been through extreme trauma - from torture, rape or starvation to seeing family members slain, brutalised or falsely imprisoned - is going to need ongoing help. Throw in the additional challenges of starting life over in a new land, with different customs, food, language and consequently slim job prospects, and the pressure and challenges must soar.
The report, Settling In: Refugees in Nelson, points to a significant gap in mental health services available for refugees living here. Another problem is other health concerns going undiagnosed or untreated. It adds that since the Canterbury earthquakes, more pressure is being placed on this region to accommodate new arrivals no longer being sent to Christchurch.
Refugees are not the only sector in which health needs are not routinely being met. Agencies such as the Nelson Multicultural Council are doing a wonderful job of supporting our newest community members.
However, not everyone wants help or knows how to ask for it, and clearly the sort of trauma some refugees have faced before arriving here leaves deep scars. Specialised counselling and long-term support surely will be needed in some cases.
The Government is meeting an obligation to the international community by taking in a set refugee "quota" - up to 750 a year. It does this voluntarily, and New Zealand is one of a handful of countries that operates a regular refugee quota programme. It is run under the auspices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which puts forward those it deems most in need of resettlement.
The final decisions are made case-by-case by New Zealand. Those accepted are deemed permanent residents of New Zealand and are eligible for a range of benefits and supplementary allowances on arrival.
At present, there is official support from Refugee Services for six months, after six weeks has been spent at a resettlement centre in Auckland. Given the issues raised in the report, it seems fair enough to ask whether this is enough.
Why are there no specialised mental health services for refugees in Nelson, Palmerston North and Hamilton, when they are provided in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington? We have made a humanitarian commitment to assist some particularly needy people; that carries obvious implications.
However, the report is generally positive, and praises the "exceptional" cooperation among agencies in Nelson, and notes the huge optimism refugees bring with them to this region. Bottom line: the more successful any resettlement is, the better the outcome for the whole community.
- The Nelson Mail