Behrouz Boochani pictured in Christchurch where he was invited by the Word Festival. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Behrouz Boochani should think twice before claiming asylum in New Zealand

New Zealanders like to claim moral superiority over their Australian neighbours when it comes to how asylum seekers are treated. But this belief is not based on reality, writes Tim Maurice of the Asylum Seekers Support Trust

The local news media has welcomed Iranian asylum seeker Behrouz Boochani into New Zealand like a celebrity. There were cameras at Christchurch Airport to capture the moment the city’s mayor, Lianne Dalziel, placed a pounamu gifted from Ngāi Tahu around his neck and warmly greeted the award winning author to the city.

Boochani described himself as a “free man” after spending six hellish years on Manus Island, the offshore Australian immigration detention facility before being moved to the Papua New Guinean capital, Port Moresby. He has commented on the kindness of strangers greeting him on the streets and that he won’t be claiming asylum in New Zealand for now. In my opinion this is a wise decision.

New Zealanders like to claim moral superiority over their Australian neighbours when it comes to how asylum seekers are treated. After-all in 2001 the Clark led Labour government offered refuge to 131 refugees left languishing on Norwegian ship the Tampa when Australian officials refused to let them dock.

But this belief is not based on reality. The New Zealand government currently spends $4.5m a year on refugee resettlement and $8.2m a year on 11 staff stopping mass arrivals of asylum seekers on boats. The message is clear: asylum seekers are not welcome here.

Let’s for a moment imagine Boochani had not arrived in New Zealand with the help of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. Instead, he arrives at the border without a passport or a visa as some asylum seekers do. He tells a Customs officer he is claiming asylum. From here it’s likely he will be bundled off to an office to be questioned by an immigration officer. Because he doesn’t have a passport he can’t prove who he is and immigration might decide his lack of identification means he could pose a risk to the community.

Boochani will be locked up in Mt Eden Prison for exercising his legal right for safety. He will be detained without charge, without committing a crime, for an indefinite period of time.

If he’s released he needs to learn how to survive without employment rights and an allowance of $120 a week. He is at risk of being exploited, or making decisions that could land him in jail.

He will struggle to open a bank account. He won’t be able to apply for an IRD number. And if he qualifies for a benefit, WINZ cannot pay him. He will have to find a trusted friend and have his money paid into their account, and have them control it. He will hope WINZ do not enforce the IRD number rule, as he cannot get one. He will spend days with nothing to do, with no money to do anything, no ability to work or engage.

There are no government funded agencies to support him. The government does not fund any social work services for asylum seekers and the few that do engage with asylum seekers do so with donations and philanthropic funding.

In the best case scenario he’s one of the 30% to be successful with his claim at the first stage. If he has no visa he will wait over six weeks to get a visa allowing him to work or access any government support. There will be no support to find housing, no refugee grant from WINZ, no government funded volunteer programme, no education on how NZ works, no benefit set up by dedicated workers – all things our quota refugees get.

Boochani will then have to apply for residency, a process that currently takes around two years. That means he will be in limbo again, even though he has been through all the checks to get his protected person status.

If I was Boochani I would not claim asylum here, the welcome is all a mirage.

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