Australia-New Zealand refugee deal: UN blames mental health toll after just 36 people take up offer

In nearly six months, just 36 people have taken up New Zealand’s offer to resettle refugees held in Australian detention camps such as Nauru, with UN’s refugee agency saying the brutality of Australia’s immigration regime is partly to blame.

In March 2022, Australia’s government accepted a longstanding offer from New Zealand to resettle up to 450 refugees from Australia’s regional processing centres over the next three years, at a rate of up to 150 per year. But after nearly six months, uptake has been slow – stymied by the dire mental health of prospective applicants.

The UN and NZ Greens say many refugees are so traumatised by their years in prison camps that they lack capacity to apply, or have lost trust in the asylum process.

In theory, more than 1,200 people could have applied – about 110 refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru, and around 1,100 temporarily brought to Australia. So far, however, 36 people have been submitted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for resettlement to New Zealand under this arrangement, and, according to the New Zealand government, only 14 have been interviewed.

“The mental health impact of what these individuals have experienced over the past nine years has significantly affected their capacity to engage in the resettlement process and has led to a general lack of confidence in the processes,” said Emily Chipman, at the UNHCR for Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. “Refugees have evoked concerns about leaving family members behind in Australia, and about not being psychologically strong enough to rebuild their lives in a new country after all they have gone through over the past nine years.”

Chipman said that of more than 1,100 refugees being held in Australia, less than 14% had expressed interest in resettling in New Zealand. Those still awaiting outcomes on their applications to other countries – such as the US and Canada – cannot be referred to New Zealand. Because of that, less than 9% of those in Nauru are currently eligible.

New Zealand immigration minister Michael Wood told reporters on Thursday the low numbers came as fewer people than expected self-nominated to settle in New Zealand. “There’s nothing that we can do to force the people concerned to pursue this pathway,” he said.

“The people themselves need to positively identify themselves that they wish to pursue the option of attempting settlement in New Zealand – and so that’s where those numbers come from. That’s the number of people who have identified that option.”

Wood said he had “had a number of productive discussions with home affairs minister Clare O’Neil in Australia, who has oversight of the deal from the Australian government’s end, and I think they’re very positively engaged in the process,” he said.

The New Zealand Greens refugee spokesperson, MP Golriz Ghahraman, said the delays were partly because many of the refugees concerned are highly traumatised, suffering from major mental health issues, with some sceptical that the offer was real and would not be withdrawn.

“There’s a whole lot of people who are really hard to process because of the very severe mental health harms,” Ghahraman said she was told in meetings with UNHCR officials. “They are struggling to get information out of them, or get them to even want to apply,” she said.

Home affairs minister Claire O’Neil has been contacted for comment on the reasons for the limited uptake.

Ghahraman added that many of the refugees had experienced years of conditions that amounted to torture, citing examples like the case of a 12-year old who was finally evacuated to Australia in a critical condition after refusing all food and medical treatment for more than 20 days. A Médecins Sans Frontières report in 2018 found almost a third of Nauru asylum seeker and refugee patients had attempted suicide, 60% had suicidal thoughts, and 12 patients were diagnosed with the rare disorder resignation syndrome, where they became nonverbal and catatonic.

Ghahraman said: “Before people are able to engage with the refugee determination process, they need a high level of mental health care and support, and that should be actively resourced – probably by Australia. Because Australia is the one that’s caused that harm.”

Others had already put in applications to resettle to Canada or the US, and were concerned about losing their place on those waitlists if they applied to New Zealand, she said.

Of the refugees being processed to check their eligibility for New Zealand’s offer, 16 are in Nauru, of whom 14 have been interviewed . New Zealand is in the process of making immigration decisions for them. The other 16 are in Australia, and have not yet been interviewed to check their eligibility because they have only recently been entered into the process by the UNHCR.

Elizabeth Young, an advocate for the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN), said while she would anticipate the resettlement process could be lengthy, it was “remarkable” that such a small number had been signed up to begin the process. “Why is it taking so long, and what is being done to ostensibly promote this as a good option for people … are people being appropriately supported to apply?”


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