Zoe Heine, Community Law Wellington and Hutt Valley
Every year New Zealand accepts 750 refugees from around the world through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) quota system. Of these 750, a portion settle as residents of the Wellington region. Once settled in New Zealand, former refugees may apply through Immigration New Zealand’s (INZ) refugee family reunification category, or through general immigration categories, to bring family members to New Zealand. That’s where our Refugee and Immigration Legal Advice Service (RILAS) comes in.
The recent history of RILAS
Wellington Community Law Centre established RILAS in 1998. In Wellington, RILAS has consisted of a Tuesday evening drop-in advice session for people with immigration questions and a programme of ongoing legal assistance for former refugees with family reunification applications.
In July 2012, when Wellington Community Law Centre merged with the Hutt Valley Community Law Centre to become Community Law Wellington and Hutt Valley (CLWHV), we extended our Wellington RILAS system to Hutt Valley clients. We introduced a Wednesday lunchtime advice session and employed a new RILAS lawyer to work in the Hutt Valley.
In terms of our legal team, that means we now have two RILAS lawyers: Inna Zadorozhnaya, who works full-time out of our Wellington office, and Megan Williams, who works part-time out of our Te Awa Kairangi (Hutt Valley) office. In March, Mary Lynch joined the team as a part-time administrator. She ensures that the RILAS programme runs smoothly, by managing client files, our appointment system and our waiting list. Around 40 volunteer lawyers and advocates assist Inna and Megan both at the advice sessions and with ongoing case work.
RILAS advice sessions are consistently the busiest advice sessions at our offices. RILAS also has the highest volume of ongoing case work. This is partly because of the nature of the work, but also because of the high needs of the clients. RILAS cases often continue over a number of years. Our staff and volunteers are truly committed to the service, but after some recent analysis, we have come to realise that the time and energy expended might not be getting the best results. For reasons out of our control, and often out of our clients’ control, too many applications are declined. We would also like to increase our focus on preventative work: on legal and policy reform in the immigration arena, and on providing high quality education and information to empower refugee communities. Our goal is to have the capacity to pick up urgent, high-need cases without having to put everything else to the side.
So in October 2012, we decided to put a hold on taking on more ongoing clients, and to re-examine the kinds of cases we do take on.
Over the years, we have assisted many clients wanting to bring their partners to New Zealand. Generally, there are three types of partnership application:
- “Family-linked” partnerships – for a declared partner of a UNHCR-mandated refugee living in New Zealand. For example, a family was separated during a conflict and one partner was accepted for resettlement in New Zealand. The resettled partner declared the missing partner through the resettlement process. If the missing partner is later located, the partner in New Zealand can apply to INZ for their partner to be resettled in New Zealand.
- New partnerships – once settled in New Zealand, a former refugee enters into a partnership with a person from another country.
- Non-declared partnerships – an existing partnership where the New Zealand partner did not declare the relationship on their own application for residence.
The process of bringing a partner to New Zealand is not always straightforward and couples can remain separated for up to a decade while they wait out a lengthy immigration process. This is particularly hard when children are involved, who have sometimes never met one of their parents.
Immigration NZ declines many partnership applications, mainly because couples are unable to prove that their relationship is “genuine and stable”. Relationships are difficult even in the best of times! But given the cultural and socio-political backgrounds of our clients, this requirement becomes even harder to prove. Some couples may have lived together for only a few months after marriage, if at all. If they have lived together, they often won’t have shared bank accounts or tenancy agreements as evidence. In some circumstances, the overseas partner may not have easy access to the internet or a phone, making it hard to maintain (let alone prove) ongoing communication.
There is also the reality of relationship break-ups. After years of separation (and years into a partnership application), couples can find they no longer wish to be together.
The most challenging partnership applications are when the person in New Zealand did not declare their partner to the UNHCR or INZ when coming into New Zealand. To bring an undeclared partner to New Zealand you have to prove that the non-declaration was not a deliberate attempt to mislead INZ. These cases are complex and time consuming and have about a 50 per-cent decline rate – either because of non-declaration or lack of evidence.
For all of these reasons, we have made the difficult decision that we can no longer provide on-going assistance for partnership applications. We simply don’t have the capacity to give these applications the attention that they require. To try and fill the gap, we will be creating accessible, high-quality information explaining what evidence is needed to prove a “genuine and stable” relationship. We will also work on providing education in refugee communities emphasising the importance of declaring all family members and the serious ramifications of non-declaration.
We will continue to assist former refugees with their partnership applications if they come within the category of “family-linked” partnerships, as described above.
Announcing new RILAS eligibility criteria
We want to provide our service to those who need it most and we want that service to be of a high standard. In order to do this we have developed new eligibility criteria to assess whether clients will be eligible for ongoing assistance from us. We will make an holistic assessment of a client’s level of need, based on a range of factors, including their immigration status in New Zealand, their family situation, their relationship to the person they would like to bring to New Zealand, and this person’s current situation. If clients are eligible, they will be added to a waitlist for ongoing support.
We realise that the changes outlined above will have an impact on the refugee community and we are looking at ways in which we can work together with refugee support groups in the Wellington region to address the need in the refugee family reunification area.
We have begun the process of consulting with various groups to establish the level of support and education we can provide. We are working towards covering a wider range of issues and at the same time increasing the efficiency and quality of our service.
The RILAS eligibility criteria came into effect on 1 April 2013. We hope the criteria will help us to address the most vulnerable refugees in need of being reunited with their families. We see the criteria as an efficient tool when assessing potential clients’ need for ongoing support.
The free legal advice sessions in our Wellington and Hutt Valley offices are still available for one-off matters.
We look forward to working with refugee support groups and refugee communities in the Wellington region to provide a better, more efficient and more effective service for our refugee community.