The Road to Seeking Asylum in Aotearoa – Salient Magazine
By Ineke Ramsteijn
For most of us, seeking asylum is a pretty foreign concept, but for countless innocent people worldwide it is a constant and debilitating obstacle to safety.
There are two different types of refugees recognised in Aotearoa: convention refugees and quota refugees. Quota refugees are individuals who come to the country through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) resettlement programme and are granted permanent resident status upon arrival. Convention refugees, on the other hand, are people who sought asylum once they arrived in Aotearoa—this can be done from the airport itself or later on from inside the community. This is a legal way of obtaining residency in another nation for people who can prove that they would face unfair persecution or treatment if returned back to their country of origin. However, years of statistics show asylum seekers in Aotearoa are treated like criminals and given little to no support after they arrive into Aotearoa.
Aisha is a young woman who fled Syria with her younger brother and parents, sought asylum in Aotearoa, and is now living in Te Whanganui a Tara. Her family were forced to use fake passports, illegally immigrating for fear of being caught and persecuted. This method used by Aisha and her family is protected by the 1951 Refugee Convention. Even so, after they arrived, Aisha and her family were separated and her father was detained because of doubts surrounding his identity. This left Aisha, her brother, and her mother in a foreign country without their father and with very little knowledge of the English language. Aisha recalls this as being “the most frightening experience [she had] ever been in.” When asked about her first few months in Aotearoa, Aisha emphasised her gratitude for eventually finding sanctuary in Aotearoa, but did not recall receiving any entry support from the community or government. Her family was given minimal information on what would happen to her father while he was detained, no support in finding accommodation, nor any information on English as a Second Language (ESL) courses. Aisha’s father was released after 154 days in detention—the legal maximum in Aotearoa is 28 days in detention without a further order from the district court, or a renewed “Warrant of Commitment” by Immigration New Zealand. During his detention, Aisha and her family were not informed of any renewal. Whether his detention ever was legal is still unclear.
Unlike convention refugees and asylum seekers, quota refugees are provided with a range of resources and support in Aotearoa, including six weeks of accommodation on arrival, a six-week orientation programme, and further support from trained resettlement volunteers and social workers for the first six months in Aotearoa. They are also provided with free English classes that provide crucial support for speakers of other languages. While being a refugee is not something anyone asks for in life, the disparity between how convention refugees and asylum seekers are treated compared to quota refugees is inexcusable.
Aotearoa has one of the lowest numbers of refugees per capita globally—only 0.3 refugees per 1,000 people. We accept a maximum of 1,500 quota refugees per year, however, for the last three years in a row, we have accepted an astonishingly low number—with only 463 being approved in 2021. If Aotearoa has accepted that as a nation we have enough resources to support 1,500 refugees annually, why are we receiving such a minimal amount? Furthermore, why are the asylum seekers we do accept not being provided with the resources that aren’t being used due to this low number?
The asylum seeker process is not a glamorous one, it is the last option for people being forced to flee from their homelands in fear for their lives. It is full of risks and uncertainties, and Aotearoa does absolutely nothing to make life easier for these people who have had their lives turned on their heads. This needs to change, and it needs to change now.
Asylum Seekers Support Trust and ChangeMakers Resettlement Forum are charitable organisations doing all they can to help asylum seekers in Aotearoa. Te Herenga Waka-based Asylum Seekers Equality Project works closely alongside these organisations, fighting for legislative change to ensure greater legal safeguards for asylum seekers. These groups continue to put out petitions and other calls to action on a regular basis and are always looking for people interested in the cause to help raise awareness, put pressure on politicians, and raise financial support. Furthermore, Amnesty International has multiple campaigns running at any given time and has an active Amnesty group here at Te Herenga Waka that is always open to new members. Further information and resources can be found on any of these organisations’ websites and will help anyone interested get a deeper understanding on the processes currently in place in Aotearoa.
Even the slightest engagement with these entities can make a significant difference. Whether it is liking, sharing, following, or simply starting a conversation with someone new. Awareness is everything, and it is the fundamental difference between change happening and change desperately needing to happen.
The issues surrounding asylum seekers and refugee rights, in general, stem from racism and the backwards mentality of “it won’t happen to us, so it doesn’t matter to me.” The reality is that the world is in a constant state of uncertainty, and as a nation, we need to realise asylum seekers are not choosing this life. As a nation that likes to pride itself on upholding human rights, we have a long way to go before we can be proud of how we treat the people coming to us for help.
Name has been changed at the request of the interviewee.