Mangere refugee centre seems safe despite Cabinet briefing paper

Te Waha Nui report by Mahvash Ali
The future of the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre is less bleak than suggested in a recent report.

According to a report on Radio New Zealand, a briefing paper to the Minister of Immigration revealed the centre’s existence was “in doubt”.

Jan Jeffery, refugee quota manager for Immigration New Zealand, says the report did outline some concerns but it was looking at the big picture.

There is no doubt the cost of running the centre’s cluster of buildings is high but they are more than 60 years old, she says.

“We are looking at how we can deliver better refugee resettlement outcomes and in doing so the Government is also looking at the buildings at the centre,” says Jeffery.

According to the briefing paper, recent remedial work to the buildings, some of which came from an old army camp, has improved things.

Jeffery says it is routine government procedure to review its projects and the briefing paper is not suggesting something out of the ordinary. “In fact, the Labour Government too had a similar suggestion.”

Heather Hayden, chief executive of Refugee Services, says: “It is a world-class programme. Personally I think the Government will maintain Mangere.”

Hayden was quoted in the RNZ report as saying  the centre was not to blame for the poor refugee employment statistics. “I was responding to the reporter’s question about employment statistics. I don’t think she understood how the centre works,” she says. “I will be very concerned if the centre does close down, but I don’t think the Government is about to make that decision,” says Hayden.

The Department of Labour, which owns the centre, is very positive about the programme, she says.

According to the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees Resettlement handbook, New Zealand takes around 750 refugees annually.

All refugees must undergo a six-week on-arrival programme run at the Mangere centre, which is managed by Immigration New Zealand.

Refugees undergo compulsory health screening and are also given English language and mental health support.

Other agencies on site are the Ministry of Health, Refugee Services and the AUT Centre for Refugee Education.

The on-arrival programme continues for a year after refugees leave the centre, with intensive support being offered in the first three months.

Maria Hayward, manager of the AUT Centre for Refugee Education, says: “The programme is a renaissance period for the refugees. Some of these refugees don’t even know how to hold a pencil. Our role is more than teaching English, and we teach them ways of communicating,” she says. “We have people who have never seen a toilet.”

Sarah Hunt, national refugee resettlement coordinator at Immigration New Zealand, says the various agencies at the Mangere centre make it a community of practice.

There is nothing similar to the New Zealand programme in any other country, says Jeffery.

Hayward says the prefabricated classrooms were originally moved on the Mangere site in about 1978, and were meant to be there for only a year, after which the New Zealand refugee programme was expected to end.

The programme had started with arrival of Chilean refugees who had fled the Pinochet regime.

The need for larger premises came about after refugees from Vietnam  started arriving in New Zealand.

“Refugee numbers were increasing and the classes had to be run somewhere,” Hayward says.

Ending the “one-stop shop” approach of the centre could be serious, especially deciding where the compulsory health screening would take place, Hayden says. “If refugees are moved straight into the community, we will need to consider that some of these people end up quite far from Auckland and there would be the question of efficiency,” she says. “If the screening moves off-shore we will need to come up with some way of ensuring that it is as intensive as the one we have here in New Zealand.”