Sri Lankan asylum seekers hold signs and plead for assistance as they seek asylum to New Zealand onboard the MV Alicia, after refusing to leave their boat for four days on July 13, 2011 in Bintan, Sumatra, Indonesia. (Photo by Yuli Seperi/Getty Images)

What it’s like to seek asylum in New Zealand

For those attempting to seek asylum in New Zealand, the path is rarely straightforward. Tim Maurice of Asylum Seekers Support Trust gives us a glimpse of life as an asylum seeker.

The room is alive with conversation. Before us, a meal is set out on the brown Formica table: a traditional Pakistani dish made from leftover mince from the previous Friday’s dumpling meal. There’s a large bowl of rice, salad and cans of Schweppes Ginger Ale. The faces around the table are varied; we could be sitting in the kitchen of any backpackers or international school in Auckland. But look at bit closer and there’s something different about these faces – they don’t have the carefree ease of a young person exploring the world. There’s a wariness in their eyes. You can see them catch themselves in moments of laughter, remembering where they are.

It’s hard for most Kiwis to imagine what it’s like to live in a war-torn country or to be threatened with imprisonment if you speak out against authorities. For the clients we support through the Asylum Seeker Support Trust, fear is what prompts their journey to New Zealand.

Put yourself in the shoes of Moses, a Kenyan man who witnesses a fatal police beating alongside his neighbour. The victim of the brutality is someone they know. They decide to complain by going to a different police station and recounting what they saw. The next night, the neighbour is taken away by masked men. Moses avoids the same fate by being out of the house.

Realising his safety is at risk, Moses escapes to a neighbouring country, but that country doesn’t accept refugees. Through contacts, he hears his neighbour is now dead and there’s an arrest warrant out for him. Moses must make a heart-breaking decision: he can’t return home to his partner and child and now he needs to seek refuge somewhere else. 

He pools $10,000 in life savings and with family help purchases a fake passport; when he fled Kenya, his passport and other documents were left behind. He uses this passport to try to enter Australia to claim asylum. They reject him at the border and record it on his immigration record.

Moses then tries New Zealand and tells the border officials of his request for asylum. Because his documents are fake, they lock Moses in Mt Eden prison with some of the country’s worst criminals. After seven months locked away behind bars, witnessing numerous incidents of violence, he takes up Immigration on its numerous suggestions and returns to Kenya.

But Moses can’t re-enter Kenya. So again he tries to take refuge in a neighbouring country that doesn’t take refugees and will never give him any legal status. He’s still not able to see his partner and baby daughter.

Protest in Australia for asylum seekers held in off shore detention (Photo: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

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Not every person who claims asylum is sent to prison, but given it costs $90,000 a year to keep someone locked up it seems logical to invest the money in a better way. The current acceptance rate of asylum seekers in New Zealand is 33%. If the person does manage to submit a case powerful enough to be accepted, one that demonstrates they’ve escaped a real risk of harm and persecution, a letter is issued confirming this but nothing else. They still need to apply for a work visa and go through the bureaucratic process to apply for residency, even though New Zealand has just confirmed they can stay here and be protected.

This is in stark contrast to quota refugees – the 1000 refugees accepted each year under our quota programme – who are granted residency, housing, training and specialised staff to help with their transition to New Zealand.

Without resources and support, a person whose claim of asylum has been accepted (a ‘convention refugee‘) is set up to fail. A simple and cost-effective way of changing this would be to streamline the bureaucratic process. This would result in fewer benefit payments; less reliance on police and courts to address errors based on cultural misunderstanding; and increase tax revenues, because those granted asylum could start work earlier.

We’re quick to condemn Australia and the treatment of asylum seekers on Manus Island and other detention camps, but we have our own Manus Island in our own backyard. Recently immigration minister Iain Lees-Galloway said that New Zealand’s current refugee policy towards people from Africa and the Middle East is “the very definition of discrimination”. It’s one thing to admit to this – what is needed now is action to change the policy.


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