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Image: ODT
Image: ODT
Dunedin promises to be a safe haven for refugees from war-ravaged Syria. New Zealand promises the same for asylum seekers from many spots in a conflict-stricken world. But despite the best intentions, is the system failing them? Bruce Munro investigates. 

He sits there, taut. Muscled arms crossed, almost hugging himself. Face serious, brow furrowed.

Mahmoud* is talking about life as a teacher in Syria, then as a refugee in Lebanon and now as a migrant in Dunedin.

There is no relaxation of his self-protective stance.

To his right sits his wife, Leyla. A purple hijab frames a face that alternates between glancing smiles at their youngest child asleep in a stroller by her side and a look of concentrated concern.

Mahmoud is answering questions, sometimes in English but mostly through Ali the young man to his left who, by unspoken mutual agreement, is the group's interpreter.

I was a school teacher in Syria, Mahmoud says.

He had everything he needed for a good life.

But money cannot buy peace. Civil war loomed. In 2012, afraid for his family in a country devouring itself, they fled to Lebanon. Some time later, their house was bombed.

The refugee camp they found themselves in was "bad", "not safe", the cause of "health problems".

It was "home" for almost seven years.

When Mahmoud and Leyla left for refugee resettlement in New Zealand they were a family of eight.

The first night in their new homeland, May 10, 2018, was spent at Immigration New Zealand's Refugee Resettlement Centre, in Mangere, Auckland. There they underwent an intensive orientation - six weeks of flat-out familiarisation and form filling.

While in Mangere, they rented a house in Dunedin, sight unseen.

We were offered one house, Mahmoud says through Ali. If you did not take it, you were on your own to find somewhere to live.

He does not recall writing up a budget. No-one cautioned him about the cost.

The house was unaffordable. The weekly rent, 70% of his work seekers' benefit and accommodation supplement.

As soon as they could, the family rented a more affordable place. But this proved to be cold, damp and detrimental to their children's health.

They were put up in a motel on the understanding this was part of the State's provision for their resettlement.

In a tight rental market, up against smaller families with bigger incomes and more familiar names, it took time. 

By the time Mahmoud, Leyla and their children were moving into their fourth home (counting the motel) in just over a year, their debt to the Government for rental bonds, rent in advance, motel accommodation, whiteware and other necessities of setting up from scratch in a foreign land was more than $8000.

Mahmoud expected life in New Zealand, after all they had experienced, would be easier. Reality has been a bit of a shock.

At times, he says, he has felt like he has been in the refugee camp again.

Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull speaks to a 250-strong crowd in the Glenroy Auditorium in 2016 about the...
Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull speaks to a 250-strong crowd in the Glenroy Auditorium in 2016 about the plan to resettle refugees in Dunedin. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Dunedin lobbied hard to regain the right to be a refugee resettlement city. On the back of that win, in April, 2016, it proudly received its first intake of Syrian refugees. In the first 12 months, about 200 arrived. Lately, the number of Syrians has tailed off, replaced by Palestinians and then, most recently, refugees from Afghanistan. Together, during the past three and a-half years, Syrian, Palestinian and Afghan refugees have boosted the city's population by 582 souls.

Dunedin is a subset of a laudable national refugee resettlement programme. During the past three years, the country has welcomed 2359 refugees from 18 countries, principally Syria (480), Myanmar (491) and Colombia (416). Refugees arriving from war-torn spots around the world, funnelled through Mangere, dispersed to new and hopefully better lives throughout New Zealand.

But questions are being raised about how well, or indeed unwell, that system is working.

Housing seems to be a significant issue.

Mahmoud's is just one example. To Ali's left is Ahmed. In 2012, Ahmed's village fled en masse from Syria to a United Nations refugee camp in Lebanon, Ali says in translation. Ahmed was housed in a repurposed underground storage unit facility which, what it lacked in sunlight, it made up for in odorous sewage pipes from the three storey building above. This was home for six years. It is where he began married life.

Red Cross general manager of migration Rachel O'Connor says Dunedin is a shining example of...
Red Cross general manager of migration Rachel O'Connor says Dunedin is a shining example of refugee resettlement support but some of the city's refugees are still doing it hard and national-level improvements are needed. Photo: ODT files
He, his wife and their child were accepted as refugees by New Zealand. He has immediate family scattered across Syria, Lebanon, Germany and Canada.

Ahmed has a physical disability. At Mangere, he requested a house on the flat. He was offered a house that, when he arrived in Dunedin, he discovered was halfway up a hill. Out of his meagre benefit, he pays someone $50 a week to deliver his groceries to his door because he cannot physically carry them up the hill.

Ali begins to translate for his father, Mahomed. The family are Palestinian but lived in Iraq until the United States invaded. With the help of people smugglers, via Syria, Cyprus, Malaysia and Indonesia, over the course of a decade, they eventually made it to New Zealand, arriving one year ago tomorrow.

Ali's excellent English was self-taught during two years limbo in Indonesia. His teachers: English-language TV shows and movies.

Their new home had previously been voted the coldest house in Dunedin. The roof leaked, the oven and heat pump did not work.

The family - Mahomed, his wife, their son, Ali, and his two adult brothers - hope to move to a new house next month.

But their story illustrates more than just the refugee housing issue. It points to other ways the resettlement system seems not fit for purpose.

Like other refugee families, they have spent their first year in New Zealand doing language learning. It is hard to get by on the benefit payment. But it is hard to get work that fits around study.

Ali and his brothers have recently found work as night-fillers, four times a week at a supermarket on the other side of town. They study during the day and restock shelves, often from 10pm to 3am. It is tough, but do-able.

Unfortunately, it has been made tougher than it needs to be.

Mahomed had been waking up to bring his sons home from work in the early hours of the morning. So the brothers applied for drivers licences.

It went well until they presented certificate of identification documents supplied by Immigration NZ that had twink and handwriting underneath the laminated cover. The New Zealand Transport Agency said the documents looked fraudulent and needed verification.

The brothers were asked to seek that verification themselves.

Their father contacted the Red Cross, which has a government contract to provide support for each refugee's first 12 months in New Zealand. He was told to contact Immigration NZ. Immigration NZ staff said they had to write an email giving certain details.

When that was done, he was told more information was needed. Finally, the brothers were told the emails were not needed because they had been given letters while still at Mangere - letters which they should give to NZTA explaining that the dodgy-looking documents were indeed legitimate. They were also told it was an issue throughout the country.

The brothers did not recall the letter and wondered why, if it was an identified problem, Immigration NZ had not rectified it rather than issuing cover letters.

It is reminiscent of the bureaucratic tomfoolery that appears to have afflicted what is a positive and generous programme to help refugees with their dental health. In addition to a free year of GP doctor visits, Dunedin-based refugees can access free dental services through the University of Otago's School of Dentistry. The dental services are supposed to be paid for by the primary health network Well South.

However, at least some refugees are getting bills for dental services rendered. This naturally causes concern because they thought the only cost of the fillings and extractions was the risk of being treated by a trainee dentist.

What they do not know, or don't remember, is that they are expected to contact Well South and ask staff to contact the Dental School to request the bill be sent to Well South instead.

Northeat Valley Project chairman Ian Telfer says there has been a systemic failure in Dunedin and...
Northeat Valley Project chairman Ian Telfer says there has been a systemic failure in Dunedin and New Zealand's care of refugees. Photo: Gregor Richardson
For Ian Telfer it has all become too much. The chairman of the Northeast Valley Project which has begun supporting a number of former refugee families, is calling the refugee resettlement process a "systemic failure".

The Project is a suburban community development initiative. Refugees came on its radar after March 15.

"In response to the mosque attacks we had said we want to be a family as a valley and we want to be welcoming to all, including our Muslim refugee families," Telfer says.

Three refugee families came forward asking for help.

"What that meant to them was, you're family, you're going to need to help us. They put that challenge to us, not unreasonably.

"What we've come to believe is that the system is not working," Telfer says.

"There is a pattern there.

"From our point of view, it's a systemic failure now, which starts from the moment they arrive in New Zealand and get signed up to a house."

Telfer says refugees should be able to choose their house fully informed about what they can afford and what sort of house they are getting.

Ideally, he says, they would come to Dunedin and stay in a safe settlement house for a few weeks while they get help to find a suitable home.

"People shouldn't have to sign up to houses sight unseen. Also, not enough care has gone into ensuring the houses are safe and warm and sound."

Telfer also believes there is a lack of advocacy on behalf of the refugees when things go wrong.

"I'm not quite sure how Red Cross see their role in this. They and other agencies certainly are there to help them, but I don't know how much they feel they can bat for the families. From the families' point of view there doesn't seem to be anyone sometimes who is willing to stand up and be the advocate for the families."

He says it has not been easy for Valley Project staff who do not have a lot of resources and are not experts in the areas in which they are being called on to help.

"We just feel someone should be there translating for the families, speaking for the families, helping them to navigate the system. We feel there has been quite a lack of that in Dunedin, in the cases we've come across."

Telfer believes there is a lot of goodwill towards refugees in Dunedin, but that that is not enough.

"We really need some systemic change, because at the moment we promise people who come from the Middle East and other places a safe haven and a new start. We promise, as a country, we'll look after them and give them a good place to come and rest. But, basically, having promised that, I don't think we are really delivering right now.

"The damage that does can be quite serious."

Getting a full picture of how refugee resettlement is faring in Dunedin and New Zealand is not straightforward.

One government agency said other news media had wisely dropped similar stories. Health organisations' public relations staff ran interference on people who it had been suggested would have an opinion worth hearing, responding to pointed questions with lashings of verbal vanilla.

One person spoke and then phoned back several days later saying they were not authorised to talk and intimating their job was at risk if comments appeared under their name.

What that person had said was that they could not comment on whether Red Cross was doing a good job; that they believed the six-week orientation programme in Mangere could be improved and needed to be reviewed; that the refugees had been through a lot and needed a lot of support but that they also needed to help themselves.

This was reiterated by one person who was willing to speak on the record, Afife Harris. Formerly of Lebanon, Harris opened a refugee support drop-in centre at Dunedin's Community House, in 2017.

At the time, she said the centre was in response to a lack of support for refugees.

Harris now runs the centre out of the Valley Project site in North Rd. Her efforts are focused on teaching craft skills that will help refugee women provide for their families in New Zealand.

Red Cross volunteers welcome the first group of Syrian refugees at Dunedin Airport in 2016. Photo...
Red Cross volunteers welcome the first group of Syrian refugees at Dunedin Airport in 2016. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
Dunedin is trying its best, she says, but more should have been done and the refugees also need to make an effort.

Immigration NZ staff say there is no truth to Telfer's claim of refugee resettlement failings.

Fiona Whiteridge, who is Immigration NZ's general manager of refugee and migrant services, says she "strongly rejects any assertion" there is systemic failure in how refugees are being dealt with.

Whiteridge stands by the Mangere orientation programme, refugee housing processes and the Red Cross' provision of refugee support.

"INZ is committed to working with local councils, iwi and communities, partner agencies and settlement providers to ensure refugees are well connected and supported to settle into their new communities," Whiteridge says.

"Specifically in Dunedin, INZ is working with the Dunedin City Council, government agencies, settlement service providers and the local community, including former refugees who have settled in Dunedin to support refugee settlement."

Afife Harris, who runs a Dunedin support centre for refugee women, says refugee resettlement is a...
Afife Harris, who runs a Dunedin support centre for refugee women, says refugee resettlement is a two-way street. Photo: ODT files
MSD does not keep track of refugee debt separate from other money owed it, so cannot say whether refugees are wallowing in debt or how that debt is being accrued.

An Official Information Act request for that detail could be lodged but would likely be declined because of the amount of work involved, the Weekend Mix was told.

It does, however, know what help it gives refugees. This includes employment support, financial help and housing assistance, MSD's group general manager of client service delivery, Kay Read, says.

MSD calls refugee debt "overpayment".

"With any overpayment ... we would encourage them to talk to us, so we can work through options with them," Read says.

Red Cross rejects any suggestion it does not advocate on behalf of refugees. It says Dunedin is a shining example of refugee resettlement support. But it does say improvements, locally and nationally, are needed.

"We are constantly advocating at the national level ... trying to get systemic changes we think are needed to improve refugee resettlement outcomes," Rachel O'Connor, who is Red Cross general manager of migration, says.

"We do advocacy at community level as well.

"And ... our social workers and case workers are constantly advocating for individuals."

O'Connor says the Dunedin public "really rallied" in support of refugees, assistance by the Southern District Health Board has been "very positive" and the Dunedin City Council response has been "quite phenomenal".

"It is the first time a council has taken a refugee steering group role. That's fantastic and we'd like to see it replicated in other areas."

But a beautiful framework does not necessarily translate to a beautiful experience for refugees.

Settlement in itself is difficult for refugees, O'Connor says.

People arrive in a foreign country, normally without their wider support networks. They often have to rebuild their careers and finances from scratch. Many people are having to learn the language and adapt to the culture.

"While all that is happening, they are having to look for work or start studying. And that is on top of the issues people have already had to face before arriving. They might be having to process what they have gone through. Many have lost family members."

O'Connor agrees providing suitable housing has been, and continues to be, a challenge.

"Housing is one of the things we're constantly talking to MBIE about," O'Connor says of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, within which Immigration NZ sits.

"We've just recently started to view some of the houses, where MBIE staff would normally do that."

O'Connor says the refugee resettlement system has changed but needs to improve.

"The only way it is going to get better is by either increasing resources or having more stakeholders involved."

That means more money or more people or both.

One of the elements missing in Dunedin is former refugees who can take a leadership role, she says.

"They provide the lived experience, they provide the advocacy - a strong refugee-led voice in the community."

But in centres such as Dunedin, which has a new refugee population, that takes time to emerge.

"That first two or three years is quite an inward process.

"At the moment, those first people in Dunedin are doing it the hard way."

The Dunedin refugees who have been sitting together answering questions through their young interpreter are asked two more.

Are they happy for their photograph to be taken by the newspaper?

No, says Mahomed, we are scared of photographs. We are scared of everything.

What hopes do you have for your future in New Zealand?

A normal life for my family, Mahmoud says.

To be safe, to have health.

And to get rid of my debt, he adds, his arms still firmly crossed.

*Aliases have been used for all the refugees mentioned in this article.



NZ already is dealing with massive challenges with kiwis (unemployment, suicides, drug abuse etc etc). So why are we having new immigrants that seem to just add to the welfare burden that all kiwis pay through their taxes? Most recent (80-90%) are still unemployed after 2-3 years. Compare that with my parents both whom were refugees- they paid NZ back within 2 weeks through their taxes for what NZ spent on them to bring them here/integrate them and they did not speak English either. So maybe we have the wrong refugee selection process nowadays? and/or we have become too generous with other people's money to try and solve a problem.

Refugees from War and disaster. There's no other selection criteria.

Hopefully the Syrian crisis is resolved by 2022. The rebuild will attract many jobs and many returning refugees.