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CORS was initially supposed to approve 150 refugees, but only 44 have been approved so far. (Photo: Getty)
CORS was initially supposed to approve 150 refugees, but only 44 have been approved so far. (Photo: Getty)

SocietyFebruary 27, 2024

Inside the trial scheme to welcome more refugees to New Zealand

CORS was initially supposed to approve 150 refugees, but only 44 have been approved so far. (Photo: Getty)
CORS was initially supposed to approve 150 refugees, but only 44 have been approved so far. (Photo: Getty)

The CORS programme makes communities, rather than government, responsible for supporting refugees. It’s a promising alternative, but will it be continued?

When Aisha* arrived in New Zealand, she felt overwhelmed. It was a lot colder than where she had been living in Indonesia. Her family were suddenly very far away. Overnight, she went from life in limbo to having to think about study or finding a job. 

“I didn’t want to be a refugee any more,” she says. “I wanted a normal life, to be someone who could help my family one day.” One week, she was leading her regular life as a refugee in Indonesia; the next, she was living in a part of New Zealand that had never hosted refugees before, confronting the head-spinning newness of attending Ministry of Social Development (MSD) appointments, finding housing, opening a bank account and wondering what she could do for work. 

Aisha is one of 34 refugees who have arrived in New Zealand through Community Refugee Sponsorship (CORS), a pilot programme that is currently due to end in June. Based on overseas programmes – including one in Canada active since the 1970s that has settled more than 300,000 refugees through private sponsorship and hybrid government-private models – it’s an alternative to the standard refugee pathway, which has funding to accept 1,500 refugees each year. Australia is currently running a similar pilot to settle 1,500 refugees over four years, part of its refugee quota of 20,000 places per year. 

an aerial view of whangarei
CORS means that refugees can settle in places like Whangārei, which hasn’t been involved in refugee settlement before (Photo: Getty Images)

Instead of the government providing housing support, an orientation programme at the Māngere Refugee Centre and support with housing, the community refugee programme consists of groups that commit to providing housing support, assistance in navigating education and healthcare, and help to find jobs and integrate new arrivals into the community. Groups can be based anywhere in the country (quota refugees are only settled in some locations), as long as they have enough money to help with new arrivals and experience working with refugees or other vulnerable people. Communities commit to supporting the refugees for two years.

“It’s a complementary pathway to the quota system,” says Birgit Grafarend-Watungwa, the programme manager for HOST International, an organisation contracted by the government to support potential sponsors. HOST helps potential sponsors navigate the bureaucracy of applications, as well as consider cultural safety, connect to relevant local groups and provide logistical advice. 

Community applicants, which are required to be legal entities, applied when the pilot began in 2021. Groups consist of at least five people who can commit to providing support. “I was so blown away by the interest – we have a waitlist of groups who would like to be involved but couldn’t be this time,” Grafaren-Watungwa says. 

a purple twilight sky with a light inside
Afghan refugees at a settlement in Indonesia, where many refugees wait in limbo (Photo: Ed Wray/Getty Images)

Admin, admin, admin

The application process is certainly thorough, and arduous for everyone involved. “I have a pile of paper on my desk, and that’s not even all of it,” says Amber Brown, who applied to be a sponsor with the group Multicultural Whangārei. “I didn’t appreciate how long the immigration timescales are and how long the process would take.” 

It’s the same for the refugees applying for the programme, who are usually identified by the UNHCR, which looks for applicants who understand English, have at least three years of work experience or a tertiary qualification, and are aged between 18 and 45. Sponsorship groups can also name people they would like to support. “It took seven or eight months,” Aisha says. After years of uncertainty, that seemed fast. “It was a new programme, and nothing seemed guaranteed. I was trying to be optimistic but I wasn’t desperately waiting.” She didn’t tell her friends and family relocating to New Zealand was a possibility until a few days before she left, filled with a mix of fear and excitement. 

The administration and complexity of managing a new programme and communicating across borders contribute to the wait times. CORS was initially supposed to approve 50 refugees in 2021-22, 2022-23 and 2023-24, but only 44 have been approved so far, with other applications in process. “Additional steps were required in the immigration decision and processing times to ensure that referred cases met the eligibility requirements,” says Andrew Lockhart, the national manager for refugee and migrant support at MBIE, in a statement. Immigration New Zealand expects to have approved all 150 refugees by June 30.

The CORS pilot follows an earlier, smaller trial in 2018, where 24 sponsored refugees were resettled in New Zealand with support from four approved community organisations. John Robertson is the global team leader at South West Baptist Church in Christchurch, one of the community groups that were involved in the first and second community resettlement trials. They supported three families in the first trial, and are supporting another three this time, although only one group has arrived so far.

“The greatest struggle is around finding affordable housing,” Robertson says, pausing. “It takes… a lot of work to find people who are sympathetic to rent a house to a family they haven’t met yet.” 

In Whangārei, Brown has had the same experience. “Finding long-term accommodation that is safe and affordable with the cost of living and inflation – it has been difficult, because so many others are also looking.” Newly arrived refugees don’t have rental histories or landlord references. 

a whole lot of houses with green dollar signs
No matter where refugees are being sponsored, finding affordable housing is a major challenge. (Photo: Getty Images; additional design: Tina Tiller)

Aisha has also found the cost of housing stressful. “I’ve only been here for three months, and I have to pay for internet, rent, electricity – all those things.” Someone from her sponsor group has accompanied her to MSD appointments, where she has had to explain, over and over, what being a refugee means, and why she isn’t working or studying yet. “I hope everyone who is sponsored can have that support,” she says. 

While newly arrived refugees are eligible for government benefits, Brown says that the process can be abrupt: “There’s a lot of pressure for people arriving straight away – sending your CV off on day three.” Refugees on Jobseeker benefits are expected to look for fulltime work immediately – a process which often doesn’t acknowledge the valuable experience and knowledge they bring to Aotearoa. One of the refugees who Multicultural Whangārei sponsored ran an organisations for single refugee women and girls who didn’t have family support, writing grants and leading volunteers. She worked as a volunteer in New Zealand for several months before finding paid employment. 

Community settlement in the bigger picture

Is CORS a way for the government to abscond responsibility for refugees and pass the cost onto private individuals? Or does it make local communities feel more responsible for the people who live around them, leading to better social connections and a sense of belonging? 

There’s no such dichotomy, says Jay Marlowe, a professor at the University of Auckland who has researched settlement outcomes for refugees over decades in Aotearoa. “There are some excellent examples of private sponsorship [internationally] and some less so.” He was part of the co-design process for the scheme. “It can add a lot of value in terms of finding people with strong social capital who are part of a community – the government can’t do that as well.” 

a friendly looking greay haired white man with a colourful shirt and subtle smil looking at the camera
Jay Marlowe has looked at generations of refugee outcomes for his research. (Photo supplied)

The underlying question in community resettlement is about what belonging really looks like; a vital concept, but one that’s slippery and hard to measure. “Refugee resettlement is not about economics, it’s about committing to protect people,” Marlowe says. In his research, Marlowe looks for outcomes like access to healthcare and meaningful work, but also the more intangible emotional and social connections that create connection to a place and community. 

Looking at decades of data for many thousands of people who have arrived in New Zealand as refugees, Marlowe has seen that even 20 years after arriving in New Zealand, refugees often earn less than the general population. “It’s not just about whether someone has a job – we have to ask if they’re building a career.”

In Christchurch, John Robertson has seen how hard-won belonging can be. Community settlement means that former refugees “are instantly part of a network of people they can lean on and gain resources from straightaway,” he says. Through his church, connections have been vital for finding housing and work, but also the simple joy of friendship. The church’s formal commitment to refugees from the first pilot has ended. “Friendships have been formed, and those friendships continue – some of our kids are in the same schools, we’re part of the same community,” Robertson says. “It changes from us helping to a more mutual relationship.” 

john robertson, a man with close cropped grey hair smilling against a blank background
John Robertson says that helping to settle refugees has had its challenges, but has lead to rewarding, mutual relationships (Photo: Supplied)

While it’s clear well-meaning communities want to help people who have been forced to leave their homes, Marlowe says it’s important that the CORS model doesn’t create a “saviour” mentality. “There can be an idea that ‘we will be a charity, we will save these victims,’” he says. “It’s important that refugees are treated as equals, not victims – they have a lot to contribute.” 

When it comes to thinking about what a successful outcome of the programme is, Marlowe says that the really long-term is crucial. “Settlement success isn’t just what an individual has – it’s the next generation, and the generation after that,” he says. “We might see failure if we just look at two- or three- or five-year snapshots.” 

What is the future for CORS?

So will the scheme be continued? At the moment, it’s not clear. The decision will be made by the minister for immigration, but this will only occur after an evaluation from Immigration New Zealand. “The CORS concept is a good one,” says associate minister for immigration Casey Costello in a statement to The Spinoff. “We want settlement to be successful and having community organisations provide support to refugees during their first couple of years here makes sense.”

casey costello with big hair and a frown
Casey Costello is responsible for refugees under the immigration portfolio (Image: Getty)

After the scheme concludes, it will be evaluated by MBIE. Andrew Lockhart, the national manager for refugee and migrant support at the ministry, confirmed to The Spinoff that the evaluation will be finalised in the second half of 2025. 

“It’s too early to talk about future decisions on the scheme,” says Costello. “I know it’s only funded until mid-year – this is another area the last government only provided time-limited funding for – but I need to see INZ’s evaluation first.” She didn’t provide any further timeline details.

HOST International Aotearoa are keen to see the programme continue. “We have learned so much [from the pilot] about the complexity of the process and maintaining good communication with everyone involved,” Graferend-Watunga says. 

Meanwhile, Aisha’s family, including her younger siblings, are still in Indonesia. She thinks of them often. “It makes me sad when I talk to them and I cannot do anything to help,” she says. She knows the sadness of waiting in a place where there is no access to formal education and no future certainty. “There are many people like me that wish their family could be here. We need these programmes to continue… they are like a new hope for people who have lost hope.” She is glad she’s in Aotearoa, hopeful for her own future, but can’t forget the many thousands of people who are still waiting for a place to belong.

The CORS programme will have accepted 150 refugees by June 30, in addition to New Zealand’s commitment of 1,500 quota refugees per year. According to the UN High Commission on Refugees, there are currently 110 million forcibly displaced people around the world. 36.4 million of them are refugees. 

*Aisha requested a pseudonym to protect her personal details and those of her family. 

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