Refugee families struggle with cold damp Dunedin accommodation

6:24 pm on 1 April 2019

An Iraqi refugee says his family has had to endure cold and damp living conditions in Dunedin because they were not given enough information about the home they were moving into.

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Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

He claimed Immigration New Zealand made him sign a lease for an unsatisfactory property before seeing any photos.

It is the latest in a series of complaints by refugees who have come to the city - who say their accommodation is not up the scratch and is even making them sick.

Yacoub Altay and his family of four were granted asylum in New Zealand 12 years after they left Iraq.

Along the way, they slept in tents, travelled illegally by boat from Malaysia to Indonesia and spent six years in Cyprus.

But when they arrived in an Auckland refugee resettlement centre late last year, Mr Altay said their housing troubles began.

He said Immigration New Zealand got him to sign a rental agreement for a house in the Dunedin suburb of North East Valley - without allowing him to see any photos first.

"When I sign the contract, after that show me the place, I refuse this. I not go there. She say to me this one offer. If accept, go. If not accept, you can go alone, find rental," Mr Altay said.

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The family have been told the oven is not safe and only two of the top elements are working. Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

Water drips down the side of the house, leaking through the ceiling and onto the carpet. There are holes in the walls and floor, and they have been told their oven is not safe - only two of the top elements are working.

His wife has been left effectively housebound because the property's steep steps and dampness cause her chest pain and shortness of breath. Mr Altay has ongoing knee and chest problems.

Both of them have medical certificates from Dunedin doctors saying their house is impacting their health.

He has asked for support, but no one has helped them, Mr Altay said.

"I talk with Red Cross, didn't have any solution about that and also I contact with WINZ about my case and bring two certificates about my health. But not have any solution. I think not care about my case ... punishment. I don't know."

Just down the road, Mustafa Allo and his family live in another cold and damp house.

It's large enough to house his eight children, but it's old and too expensive to heat in the winter.

The family's future is uncertain after their landlord issued them a notice to leave after a year and half at the property.

"Last year I go and ask about Housing New Zealand. Should be I am refugee, I get Housing New Zealand house so they give me private house, and too big, too expensive. It was damp, old," Mr Allo said.

All he wants for his family was stability, he said

He hoped they could continue living in the neighbourhood they had made their home.

But finding a place big enough for his family was going to be difficult - especially in an already stretched property market.

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Ahmad Al Ghanem said the Dunedin house is cold and damp and their three-month-old son recently spent three nights in hospital because he could not stop coughing. Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

Another refugee, Ahmad Al Ghanem, who spoke through an interpreter, said the cold, damp conditions in his Dunedin home were making his family sick.

"They have enough because they have the war in Syria, they suffer a lot in Syria when they have the war," Mr Al Ghanem said.

Coming to New Zealand was meant to offer a safer and better life, he said.

"But when they came and they find this issue they feel they're still in war. It's not really the standard they wanted life for living with their children."

Calls to the landlord garnered no help.

He was told he could leave at any time - but finding affordable, adequate housing is easier said than done.

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The children's room is cold and the carpet is damp. Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

Their children sleep in one room with three single beds pushed together. It's cold and the floor beneath the carpet is damp, but it gets fresh air.

Their parents sleep in the lounge with three-month-old Ali. Their bedroom is unsuitable because it's too damp.

The fridge door is filled with medicine. Their son Ali recently spent three nights in hospital because he could not stop coughing.

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The fridge door is filled with medicine for their three-month-old son Ali. Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

Immigration New Zealand sent through a statement in response to questions from RNZ.

Refugee division national manager Andrew Lockhart said Immigration New Zealand worked with the Ministry of Social Development and Housing New Zealand to ensure refugees were well connected and supported for their new lives in either government housing or private rentals.

"As part of a whole-of-government approach, the housing needs of quota refugees are assessed by the Ministry of Social Development and housing is secured for all quota refugees before they leave the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre," Mr Lockhart said.

The Red Cross provided settlement support to quota refugees for up to 12 months in the community under a government contract, he said.

"This settlement support includes supporting quota refugees to connect and engage with local services in the community such as housing providers, enrolment with GPs, English language classes, education and employment. Quota Refugees (as permanent residents) are also eligible to access ongoing government-funded support for services such as housing and employment support and health care."

Ministry of Social Development regional director Sue Rissman said finding suitable housing in the current market could be tough.

"We work closely with vulnerable families, including refugees, to find somewhere that is safe, warm and dry to live," Ms Rissman said.

But The Valley Project community worker Charlotte Wilson said families felt disempowered after seeking help from government services and support services without success.

They should have healthy, affordable housing in the suburb of their choosing, she said.

"I feel ashamed that this is what our country has offered. We've said we will house you, this can be your home, and this is what the situation is."

A new group of refugees is expected to arrive in Dunedin next month.

Those who are already here hope it will be a warmer - and drier - welcome for the new arrivals.

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