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Refugee youth say NZ welcomes refugees “in theory”



Refugee youth say NZ welcomes refugees “in theory,” but not always in practice

Participants in a Refugee Youth Forum in west Auckland yesterday say New Zealand provides core services to refugees, but that there are numerous barriers to accessing them.

The forum, hosted by leading refugee mental health and wellbeing agency, Refugees as Survivors New Zealand (RASNZ), took place over three days. Twenty-four young people aged 18-24, all from refugee backgrounds, came together to discuss issues that have impacted their ability to successfully build their lives in New Zealand.

A panel discussion was held yesterday afternoon, with representatives from the Ministry of Youth Development, Ministry of Social Development, Red Cross, RASNZ, the Human Rights Commission, Ministry of Education, Office of Ethnic Communities, Ministry of Immigration and Employment and Auckland District Health Board.

Five key areas of concern emerged from the discussion: education, health, access to social services, employment and community engagement.

While the participants reiterated that New Zealand, as a whole, is a safe and peaceful country with plenty of opportunities for some, there are challenges that prevent many resettled refugees from becoming active, engaged members of their local communities.

Many of these challenges start with education. Young people arriving as refugees in New Zealand are often far behind in their educational achievements, due to the realities of war and persecution in their countries of origin. Many also have little to no English language skills when they arrive. Compounding this, a number of young forum participants recounted a lack of understanding on the part of teachers and educators in terms of cultural and religious sensitivity.

“I was asked, in primary school, to explain to my class the difference between Islam and terrorism,” said one young woman who participated in the forum.

The participants suggested that more interpreters and multi-lingual teacher aides be made available for newly-arrived students from refugee backgrounds, in order to help them catch up academically with their peers. They also recommended training for educators around cultural sensitivity, and the introduction of religious studies in schools, “about many different religions.”

Under the heading of health, young participants noted two resounding challenges faced by former refugees living in New Zealand. These included cultural awareness and, crucially, mental health.

“We relate with many Maori and Pasifika people, in that we often leave GP appointments feeling rushed and unheard,” explained one young participant.

The youth spoke highly of the Te Whare Tapu Wha model for understanding Maori health, and said that a similar model should be extended to refugees from community-based backgrounds.

They also outlined an urgent need for an increase in after-hours interpreters. Several participants relayed cases where they had been asked, as children, to translate health information on behalf of their parents or other older family members. This is a common situation, they claim, and one which poses undue stress on the child and disempowers parents.

“A woman in our community had blood cancer,” said one young woman. “She had to rely on her 8-year-old son to translate. He simply told her she had ‘a problem with her blood,’ so she thought it wasn’t serious. Thankfully, an adult translator stepped in and helped before it was too late – but imagine if they hadn’t?”

Mental health issues are also a huge challenge for many former refugees. While many have experienced trauma and violence in their countries of origin, cultural taboos and stigma can sometimes prevent individuals from seeking help. A number of the forum participants had themselves experienced severe depression, anxiety attacks and other mental health issues but were uncomfortable discussing these with their parents or health professionals out of shame.

As one young woman explained, “My parents did so much, and gave up so much, so that we could come here. But I feel like I am not living up to that. I cannot stress this enough; no matter how beautiful a place is, you cannot enjoy it if you’re suffering.”

The participants recommended that addressing refugee mental health be made a clear priority in the resettlement process. This should include education within resettled refugee communities themselves around mental health to destigmatise the issues and encourage people to reach out and ask for help – either for themselves or their loved ones.

Access to employment opportunities was another major point of discussion at the forum. While many of the young people present had spent at least part of their school years in New Zealand and spoke fluent English, they witnessed parents and older siblings struggle to move beyond low-skilled, minimum-wage jobs.

“My father was a builder for 15 years before we came here,” explained one young woman. “He used to teach other people how to build. But here, he has to go back to student level because his experience is not transferrable in the New Zealand system. There is a lot of pressure on him to support his family, so he works as a landscaper, but he doesn’t enjoy it and feels held back, like many skilled and educated older refugees.”

The forum participants called for New Zealand employers to make their hiring practices more flexible.

“If my father has 15 years’ experience building, why can’t he sit an exam to prove his knowledge, rather than being asked to start from scratch and undertake an apprenticeship? While he managed to find a job, many others struggle – and no one wants to be dependent on the state, especially if they have skills and experience.”

Finally, participants called for more government funding to support community engagement initiatives such as youth leadership programmes for young people from refugee backgrounds. They also called for additional funding to support refugee families in need for longer than the standard 6-12 months’ support provided by the Red Cross.

“Some families may only need help for three months as they settle in,” said one participant. “Others may need help for three years. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all issue and service providers need to use common sense when determining whether a particular refugee family is ready to stand completely on their own two feet.”

Overall, the participants’ experience integrating into New Zealand culture has been positive, and there was obvious excitement around what the future might hold. However, they were unanimous in their concern for new refugee arrivals, particularly those refugees who are older and more vulnerable.

The forum was closed with a question.

“New Zealand welcomes refugees in theory. But do we welcome them in practice?”


About RASNZ:

RASNZ is New Zealand’s leading provider of mental health and wellbeing support to all incoming refugees at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre, as well as throughout the wider Auckland community.

Their holistic approach includes provision of free access for former refugees to psychologists, psychiatrists, body therapists, cultural and community activities and youth programmes.

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