Social Issues

500 refugees won’t break the bank

By 2020, up to 14 different places around the country are expected to be ready to take in refugees. Teuila Fuatai looks at what this means - both for refugees and the communities they’re joining.

Currently, refugees settling in New Zealand are set up in one of seven locations. In less than two years, the Government is due to double that number as part of its plan to increase its annual refugee quota to 1500 people.

The news, announced this week by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, followed a testy public debate among coalition parties about how many refugees was appropriate for New Zealand to welcome. Comments from deputy prime minister Winston Peters, made while overseas, reflected one set of perspectives:

"We've got 50,000 people who are homeless back home, and I can show you parts of the Hokianga and elsewhere, parts of Northland, where people are living in degradation.”

Peters, who signed-off on Wednesday’s quota announcement, wasn’t completely off-the-mark. Just this week, Auckland held a region-wide homeless count. Results from the night are expected to give a more accurate picture of the city’s homeless problem (an Auckland Council study last year put the number of people without proper housing at 23,400). In the past six months, a lack of suitable and/or affordable accommodation for those in need in Rotorua, Wellington and Christchurch has also made headlines. Stories detailing the reality of high deprivation levels prevalent in some communities - like the death of teen Tofi Toelupe, who had rheumatic fever - continue to cause concern.

Inevitably, questions around New Zealand’s capacity to accomodate refugees - who require a range of social support services throughout the resettlement process - come up.

Rachel O’Connor, general manager of migration programmes at Red Cross New Zealand, explains how it works.

Essentially, the services and assistance provided to refugees - who work with the Red Cross during their first year - are designed for them and their specific needs, she said.

“Across our settlement programme and our employment programme, we have about 160 staff, and approximately 1000 volunteers.

“We have an employment programme called Pathways to Employment. We average sourcing a job a day, which is pretty awesome - about 350 jobs a year", O'Connor said. 

In terms of accommodation and new settlement locations, the direction is set by the Government.

Next year, Christchurch is due to welcome its first refugee families since the 2011 earthquakes. Following that, six new settlement locations will be decided by the Government “in conjunction with local council and community leaders", she said

“They’ll be looking to identify six locations that have housing capacity and employment opportunities. That’s going to mean quite small numbers going into each of those locations - it will assure that there’s no existing pressure put on existing settlement locations where there might be housing shortages.”

Goodwill from the public is also important - with donations a significant source of funding and goods for refugees in the past, she said.

“When we established Dunedin [as a settlement centre] about two-and-a-half years ago, we were overwhelmed with the level of support that came from the community.

“We had a year-long waiting list of people wanting to volunteer. There’s garages packed with household items that people had donated. I have no doubt the next six settlement locations will have the same reaction as well.”

Associate professor Sara Kindon, a social geographer at Victoria University whose research involves working with former refugees, suggested practical changes to the arrival process may be necessary to help smooth out the transition period.

“The current rolling intake process may need to be reconsidered given the pressures that this puts on services and volunteers to respond at short notice to new arrivals,” Kindon said.

“It may be that there is a need to return to regular and periodic intakes of people to enable more sustainable planning and delivery.”

For the Salvation Army, which does not work specifically with refugees, it was important to consider the bigger picture.

“Every year we support more than 30,000 families through our social services alone,” Lieutenant Colonel Ian Hutson said.

“So a further 500 people over a year would not be a big increase for our services, even if all of those people did require support.

“While it is very important that struggling New Zealanders get the help they need, we also support doing the same for refugees, who like others, with the right support, enrich and enhance our society", he said. 

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