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The Mangere refugee centre. Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images
The Mangere refugee centre. Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images

SocietyApril 8, 2020

Newly arrived refugees in limbo in lockdown New Zealand

The Mangere refugee centre. Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images
The Mangere refugee centre. Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images

A new life has been put on hold for people in the Auckland resettlement centre, writes Greta Yeoman.

For the 135 refugees based at the Māngere Refugee Resettlement Centre in Auckland, plans to resettle in towns across New Zealand towards the end of April are up in the air with the country four-week-long Covid-19 lockdown coming into force soon after their arrival on March 13.

All refugees arriving in the country spend about six weeks at the Auckland centre, undergoing an orientation programme which can include health checks, meeting with staff from supporting organisations in their soon-to-be new towns, taking English lessons and going to school, before heading to one of several resettlement locations across New Zealand.

Presbyterian Support South Canterbury (PSSC) refugee resettlement manager Fiona Jackson said the organisation had been informed that with New Zealand at alert level four, resettlement has been put on hold “until further notice”.

PSSC is in charge of refugee resettlement in Timaru, one of two new resettlement locations, alongside Blenheim, who had been set to get their first new arrivals later this month.

The town is already home to a Syrian refugee family, who came to New Zealand under the trial of the Community Sponsorship refugee scheme in 2018.

Jackson said the delay could be “very unsettling” for families stuck in the Māngere centre for the duration of the lockdown.

“They have already lived in a state of uncertainty for a number of years, so further delaying their settlement is regrettable.”

She said she had been reassured, however, that they would be well-supported at Māngere during this time.

An Immigration New Zealand spokesperson confirmed the resettlement of refugee families has been delayed indefinitely. “They will continue to be housed at Māngere until a decision is made that it is safe for them to be settled in their new communities.”

If the lockdown were only to last the four-week period, the six-week timeframe could in theory proceed as normal – but many programmes have been put on hold.

As Refugees as Survivors NZ (RASNZ) chief executive Ann Hood told The Spinoff, even in normal circumstances, resettlement timeframes have always depended on the availability of housing. “It’s very much unknown.’’

Fiona Jackson said PSSC has been working on securing a private rental for the Syrian family arriving in Timaru later this month, but this had stalled due to lockdown.

“Unfortunately, as with a lot of things in life at the moment, work on securing the property has been put on hold.”

Jackson was also due to visit the centre in mid-April to meet the family ahead of their arrival in Timaru, but this has been delayed for now, she says. The organisation’s training programme for volunteers supporting the family has also been halted.

“We are now looking at options to deliver this training online.”

Hood said RASNZ staff only began to have contact with the families last week, providing mental health support by phone.

She said the ability to provide in-depth support and counselling to refugees – both at the centre, and in the wider community – had changed, as in-person sessions are not available due to social distancing measures. “It’s a very different process.”

Hood said the team are providing as much support as they can to families at the centre, particularly around looking after their mental health in a new country, with limited outside time due to lockdown, and during a time of “not knowing”.

The group currently at Māngere come from as far afield as Syria, Myanmar, Colombia, Eritrea, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Palestine.

New Zealand takes in 1,000 refugees a year, though this amount is expected to increase to 1,500 in July.

An Immigration NZ spokesperson said future decisions on the refugee quota and resettlement plans will be made with Covid-19 developments in mind.

All international refugee resettlement has been temporarily halted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and other international organisations, until further notice.

Children currently at the centre have been provided with education packs, and additional resources are being prepared for both adults and children, an Immigration spokesman said.

“While maintaining their bubbles, Quota refugees are being provided [with] a recreation programme to keep them active during the lockdown.”

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