31 May 2023

'Take responsibility': first year of AUS/NZ refugee deal will not be met

2:18 pm on 31 May 2023
The Gosford Anglican Church's Anzac Day sign

The Gosford Anglican Church's Anzac Day sign Photo: Anglican Gosford Church

Immigration New Zealand (INZ) says it is not dragging the chain in processing refugees from Nauru under the New Zealand - Australia Resettlement Arrangement.

Thirty-one of the 150 people meant to be resettled by 30 June have arrived so far, INZ has confirmed to RNZ.

This is all part of a deal by the New Zealand government to resettle people detained on Nauru by Australia for trying to enter the country by boat.

The deal is for 150 people this year and also in 2024 and 2025.

"The first year ends in July [June 30th], we won't have the 150 because we have just started the work. But we will have 450 in the three-year period," the head of INZ Alison McDonald said.

INZ Refugee and Migrant Services acting general manager Andrew Lockhart said his team was working as hard as they could to get people to New Zealand as part of this arrangement.

But both the Australian-based Refugee Action Coalition and Amnesty International say the process is too slow given the refugees have already been highly scrutinised over the almost decade that they have been held in detention by Australia.

"We're talking about refugees who've been found to be refugees, in some cases, eight or nine years ago. They've been scrupulously investigated.

"To the refugees themselves, it's just impossible to understand why there is any delay," Refugee Action Coalition spokesperson Ian Rintoul said.

A process to follow

The agreement includes those physically in Nauru and those who were previously in Manus Island on Papua New Guinea, or Nauru, and have been evacuated to Australia, an INZ statement said.

A total of 248 people, both from Nauru and Australia, had been referred to INZ as of 29 May, the organisation said.

"We're gaining momentum. I don't think 248 people is a small number at the end of the day, but it will take a while for them to flow through," Lockhart said.

Three asylum seekers gesture to protesters holding a pro-refugee rights rally from their hotel room where they have been detained in Melbourne on June 13, 2020, after they were evacuated to Australia for medical reasons from offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island. (Photo by William WEST / AFP)

Photo: AFP / William West

'Far too long'

With the process taking six to nine months depending on the complexity of the case and the circumstances, refugees are left in limbo dreaming of their next steps.

"Australia's certainly been slow processing the refugee permanent protection claims in Australia, but there would seem to be no impediment whatsoever for 150 people to come from either Australia or Nauru to New Zealand," Rintoul said.

"What we do know is that the quota this year is not going to be met. And someone needs to take responsibility for that," he added.

RNZ has spoken with one refugee who had been waiting to hear back from INZ about their application. They said their mental health had been worsening and they were not sure how much longer they could wait.

"Where we can, we will remove barriers and ensure any issues are addressed," Lockhart said.

When asked what INZ was doing to address any barriers, it said that last week it held a number of seminars in Australia to explain the process to refugees and answer questions about life in New Zealand.

While Amnesty International Australia's Graham Thom understands the government has taken a very cautious approach, he has described the process as, "very sad for individuals who have lost two years of their life, in the name of politics".

"We think it could have been expedited. But we're not the government. And we don't have to explain this all to the voting public of New Zealand."

What about PNG?

Refugees who were on Manus Island and are now in Australia can be resettled under the AUS/NZ Agreement.

But the 84 who are still in PNG are not included in the AUS/NZ arrangement, INZ said.

"It's been pretty traumatic for those individuals to be stuck there and now told that Australia has washed their hands of them," Graham Thom said.

While the focus was on resettling refugees eligible under the NZ/AUS agreement, Thom said it was important not to forget there were also refugees trapped in PNG.

"Thankfully, countries like New Zealand have stepped up to make sure that there is a solution, at least for some of the men who are trapped in PNG," he said.

Thom wants Australia to again accept responsibility for the men who are left on PNG.

Thousands of Australians demand refugees not be sent back to Nauru or Manus Island, on 20 March 2016 in Melbourne.

Photo: Recep Sakar / ANADOLU AGENCY