Colombian refugee supporters quizzed

Adriana Margarita Rincon speaks to a community information meeting in preparation for the first Colombian refugees' ...
Robyn Edie

Adriana Margarita Rincon speaks to a community information meeting in preparation for the first Colombian refugees' arrival in Invercargill next year.

Colombian migrants, proud of their homeland, faced sharp questions at a community information meeting in Invercargill last night in advance of the first refugees to Invercargill in March next year.

Adriana Margarita Rincon, an SIT student who had come with her family, said Colombians were an open friendly people with family oriented values .

But after watching a brief video promotional video one questioner asked why people were now coming as refugees "when you have such a wonderful country?".

She replied: "We cannot hide the reality we have faced a violent situation in Colombia for the last 50 years."

While some had come to New Zealand as immigrants, looking for opportunities, the 15 refugees due in March were among those who "don't have the opportunity to choose."

In their parts of the country they were fleeing a really bad situation.

"Now they need someone else to help them find a place they can call home."

Angela Pardo acknowledged her own experiences in Colombia had included many challenges and she had found New Zealand a land blessed by peace and freedoms:  "You have the right to be who you are."

After five decades of war a peace deal between the Government and the Revolutionary Armed Force of Colombia (FARC) was agreed in mid-August. But an estimated 220,000 people have lost their lives in the conflict, more than 6 million have been internally displaced,  and nearly 400,000 refugees have sought asylum in the Americas.

Immigration NZ refugee unit national manager Andrew Lockhart  said Colombia was at the beginning of a peace process.

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"Yes there's been some big progress but there's still a way to go to provide that personal protection and personal security in some parts of the country."

Paramilitary gangs had made it unsafe for people who had been compelled to flee for their own safety: "They don't choose to do that. They are forced to do that."

A former Ethiopian refugee who now works to help others, Dawit Arshak said  it was very hard for those who had fled their country to go back; "They're already uprooted."

Another questioner asked : "I mean no disrespect, this is an honest question. Where will they be housed? Rentals? What will that mean for the rest of us and competition for houses?"

Lockhart acknowledged that housing was a challenge for resettling refugees in New Zealand and said availability of housing in Invercargill was one of the assessments  for making it a resettlement city.

"I don't want to underplay the difficulty of that. It will be a combination of state and social housing and private housing - and we will work hard to make sure we have got the houses secured before people move down to Invercargill."

Red Cross migrations programme manager Rachel O'Connor said refugees would be looking to feel safe and welcome, but also for opportunities to contribute to their new community.

Dawit Arshak said refugees were the forgotten, the voiceless, the powerless.

They wanted to live without fear.

Deputy Mayor Rebecca Amundsen said refugee settlement would support the Southland Regional Development Strategy to bring 10,000 people to Southland,while the Welcoming Communities initiative involving local government and community groups would help integration.

"We know Invercargill is a welcoming place," she said. "This is our chance to prove it."



 - Stuff

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