The difference between a quota refugee, a person seeking asylum, and convention refugee

By Amy Christian

Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”. Unfortunately, not everyone who seeks to exercise this right in New Zealand is treated equally. “Amir” and “Yara” have both fled their homes to protect themselves. But despite their shared circumstances, New Zealand has categorised them differently based on their method of arrival. Amir is a quota refugee. Yara is a person seeking asylum. Amir will be given adequate help in settling into our community. Yara will not.

Amir arrives in New Zealand under the governments’ Refugee Quota Programme. He spends his first six weeks in the Mangere Resettlement Centre. This centre gives him the foundational tools he needs to make the most of New Zealand. The centre provides him with access to physical and mental health services, settlement support, and English language classes.
After six weeks, Amir moves to his new community where he is provided with social housing. Permanent residency is given automatically, so he has full access to social security benefits and may begin working immediately. A number of government and non-profit organisations are able to provide him with employment opportunities. He receives ongoing settlement support that will continue for at least six months.

To put it simply: Amir, like all other quota refugees, is taken care of. They have comprehensive rights and are provided substantial support while establishing their new home.

Yara is not part of the Refugee Quota Programme. She arrives on her own and claims asylum at the border. Because of this, she will have a drastically different experience. Seeking asylum is her basic human right, but our government offers Yara almost negligible support. From the very start, she must rely on herself and what few (and already stretched) non-profit organisations are available.

Yara is faced with two immediate problems. Where is she going to live? How is she going to pay for it? Unlike Amir, Yara is responsible for her own housing and is not entitled to work immediately. She may only apply for a work visa after her first immigration interview, which may take a few months.

Because Yara is classified as an asylum seeker, she is not given adequate help finding her feet. There is no introduction to New Zealand. No ongoing case management. And very little settlement support. Much of the help that is available to her needs to be sought out before it can be used. Financially, she is only entitled to the emergency benefit. She cannot receive accommodation supplements. The government leaves her to shoulder the burden of finding affordable housing and employment alone.

Like Amir, Yara speaks very little English. Unlike Amir, she is responsible for her own education. If she is lucky there will be spaces available at an English language course run through a non-profit organisation. If not, then she must pay for it herself or go without. Settling into a new community becomes exponentially harder when you do not speak your new neighbours’ language. It leads to fewer social ties, less job opportunities, and hinders a person’s ability to enjoy the limited support that is open to them.

Of the 300 people yearly who seek asylum in New Zealand, roughly 100 will have their applications approved. This makes them convention refugees. Their rights and opportunities improve but they are still not equal to quota refugees. Let us assume Yara’s application is accepted.

She immediately applies for permanent residency because it was not automatically granted. Until it is approved, Yara retains the same limited rights she had as an asylum claimant. After her application is approved, she no longer needs a work visa and she has access to full social security benefits. This makes life easier. Going forward she has the same right to live in New Zealand as quota refugees.

However, because Yara is a convention refugee she will not gain access to the opportunities provided to a quota refugee. At no stage is she provided with social housing or further settlement support. She does not gain access to the employment opportunities given to quota refugees. There are some English courses for adult convention refugees, but availability issues mean most people in Yara’s situation remain responsible for their own language education.

People in need of asylum are some of Earth’s most vulnerable citizens. New Zealand’s indifference towards people seeking asylum and convention refugees is blatantly unjust. The opportunities provided to quota refugees should be standard for all people who arrive seeking safety. They fled the same places. Faced the same persecutions. Saw the same horrors. The difference is in the policy, not the people. New Zealand can do better.