17 Sep 2021

New sponsorship programme for NZ communities to welcome refugees

From Checkpoint, 6:19 pm on 17 September 2021

New Zealanders wanting to welcome former refugees into their community will be able to apply to take part in a visa sponsorship programme from next month.

The sponsorship programme is part of an expanded trial, in which communities across Aotearoa have welcomed whānau from around the world.

Welcome signs drawn by school students for refugees at Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre's health centre.

Welcome signs drawn by school students for refugees at Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre's health centre. Photo: RNZ / Israa Emhail

The trial began in 2018 and involved four community groups welcoming six families, and 24 refugees, to different cities and towns across Aotearoa.

Saralinda MacMillan and two of her Nelson friends took part in the pilot and joined together with the local St Vincent De Paul to welcome a former refugee whanau to their community.

The group formed a pre-made family for the Syrian couple they sponsored, covering some of their costs, and helping with things like learning to drive or swim.

It was an experience MacMillan said gave her a much deeper connection to her local community.

"We have our own set of difficulties and challenges and not everything's perfect, but overall we're pretty privileged when you look at the opportunities most people can have access to."

Now the programme is being expanded - 150 refugees will be welcomed over the next three years and applications open in October for anyone wanting to be a sponsor.

Immigration New Zealand manager for refugee and migrant support Sarah Ward said groups could nominate someone to sponsor, or be matched with a person in need.

There is a range of countries eligible for sponsorship, and community groups from anywhere in Aotearoa can apply to welcome them.

Ward said that meant settlement could happen beyond the main centres, creating more diverse communities.

"You end up with a broader understanding of humanitarian situations and more diverse communities."

An umbrella organisation is being set up to help the sponsors and the refugees they are welcoming.

Sarah Ward said similar programmes had been successful in Canada, the UK and Ireland and the United States is looking at doing something similar. 

"I think the thing that resonates around the world is connection to community - it's about direct community action to support bigger global humanitarian need," she said.

Refugees taking part in the programme need to have a basic level of English and either three years of work experience or two years of tertiary study.

Refugee Council of New Zealand committee member Pooja Sundar said she is incredibly pleased the programme was being expanded, as it is another way for New Zealand to help out with the global refugee crisis.

"It's up to New Zealand to really take a good hard look at what we can do to support people who have helped us as New Zealand in the past.

"Just out of general human kindness, to ensure that New Zealand does step up and do our part - if not more than our part - to ensure those who are going through a difficult time elsewhere, have a home here."

New Zealand increased its refugee quota from 1000 to 1500 from last year but Covid-19 forced a pause on arrivals.

Around 210 people were scheduled to have arrived in the country so far this year.