Spotlight on RILAS
As highlighted by Seema’s story, we can provide some assistance to women who are experiencing family violence and whose visa status is dependent on their relationship with their partners. The visa options available to people in these situations depend on the immigration status of their partners: people who leave a violent relationship with NZ citizens or NZ residents are able to apply for special work and residence visas for victims of domestic violence if they meet certain criteria. People in relationships with partners who hold work visas are not eligible to apply for these special visas and their immigration options are very limited. This makes them extremely vulnerable and in need of advocacy.
We also have provided assistance to individuals experiencing illegal employment conditions but feel they cannot resign as their visa is tied to their place of work.
Refugee family reunification
A large part of what we do is providing on-going assistance to refugees with their family reunification applications. Last year we assisted with over 100 cases. We have 14 volunteer advocates who provide ongoing support to these applications.
Many refugees end up separated from their family members when they flee persecution. Refugees separated from their immediate family members (dependent children and/or spouses), or here alone or are sole carers for dependent children, are entitled to apply for reunification with certain family members (under various different Immigration New Zealand policies.)
The family reunification process is complex and can be incredibly stressful to navigate, particularly for newly arrived refugees. Family members are often living in dangerous situations and this makes family reunification even more crucial. We regularly see the profound impact that family reunification has on the lives of refugees. When family reunification is complete we see that refugees are much better equipped to look for work, learn English and to participate in their new communities.
Education and community connections
We provide information and reach out to the community through our community education programs. In order to promote how our services work to those who may qualify, we are involved in the Red Cross inductions for newly arrived refugees. We also provide legal education on immigration to those working with refugees and vulnerable migrants. In the past we have presented to the District Health Board and the Citizen Advice Bureaux. We’ve also lectured at Victoria University and Otago University (Wellington campus) on immigration topics.
We work hard to raise the profile of refugee and migrant issues by participating in public discourse. In the past year our supervising RILAS lawyer Megan Williams has spoken on panels and been interviewed by Law Talk and Radio NZ.
This work is hard and we wanted to tell you more about the amazing team behind it…
Our RILAS lawyers are Megan Williams, Hsu-Ee Khoo and Victoria Genys (Vikki). Each of them provide a unique outlook on the issues we face based on their individual life experiences and what brought them to RILAS work as explained in their biographies below.
“I was really stunned at the circumstances that caused many people to seek asylum and the challenges they faced once they reached the UK. Until that point I knew very little about refugees in NZ other than following the Ahmed Zaoui case. Also as a child in the 80s my parents were friends with a Cambodian (‘Kampuchean’) refugee and supported him in settling into Invercargill. Which I now realise must have been incredibly difficult for him.”
Megan has been a RILAS lawyer on staff since 2012. Before coming to Community Law, Megan’s first legal role was volunteering and then working as a law clerk at the Ngai Tahu Māori Law Centre in Dunedin. Following a brief stint as a yoga teacher she was impelled to return to law following the introduction of the Foreshore and Seabed legislation. In 2006 she moved to London and began work at the AIRE centre in London. It was at the AIRE centre that Megan first worked with refugees. Megan says “I was really stunned at the circumstances that caused many people to seek asylum and the challenges they faced once they reached the UK.”. The AIRE centre worked with other marginalized individuals and the Bancoult case in particular stood out for Megan, “between 1965 and 1973 the UK and US governments forcibly removed the indigenous Chagossians from their homes on the Chagos Islands so that their land could be given to the United States for a military base on Diego Garcia. These Chagossians essentially became refugees and are still not allowed back…. seeing the consequences of the taking of land and property in a modern context gave me a new perspective on the experience of tangata whenua in Aotearoa. It also really highlighted to me the harm that flows from forced displacement and the difficulties of living in exile.’
Returning to New Zealand in 2009, Megan began work in the Māori legal team at Kensington Swan as well as becoming a RILAS volunteer advocate. In 2012 she applied for the RILAS lawyer role at Te Awa Kairangi (our Lower Hutt office) and has been here since. She has found an interesting cross-over from her work in Māori land law and treaty settlements to advocacy for refugees, “there are many similarities in terms of the importance of whanau and close relationships with extended family and cultural practices like whangai/customary adoption.”
“There was a reading comprehension passage in one of my textbooks about boat arrivals and how people should inform the authorities if they come across boat people. The accompanying drawing is still relatively clear – a number of shirtless men and their boat on the beach.”
Hsu-Ee is coming up to her one year anniversary after joining the team in May 2015.
Her career started out as Refugee & Protection Officer at Immigration New Zealand’s Refugee Status Branch where her core work was deciding asylum claims. From there she worked at UNHCR Indonesia mainly with Afghan refugees being resettled to Australia. She returned to INZ to work with the Refugee Status Branch and the Refugee Quota Branch, which processes refugee resettlement applications under the Refugee Quota Programme. Following this she worked in Lebanon as part of UNHCR fast-track processing for emergencies.
She was in Lebanon when she saw the RILAS lawyer job advertised. She says “I’m probably one of those rare people who wasn’t a volunteer first. I’d seen the job advertised a couple of times before but somehow never got round to applying.”
Hsu-Ee grew up in Malaysia, going to primary school at the end of the Indochinese refugee crisis. ” There was a refugee processing/detention centre on the outskirts of KL that we used to drive past when going out of town. There was a reading comprehension passage in one of my textbooks about boat arrivals and how people should inform the authorities if they come across boat people – the accompanying drawing is still relatively clear in my mind (a number of shirtless men and their boat on the beach). My mum later explained the refugee issue but I don’t think I understood it until I watched the musical Miss Saigon in my teenage years”
Vikki began at RILAS as a volunteer advocate in 2012. She brought her years of experience as a judicial law clerk in Pennsylvania and as a litigation associate of K&L Gates in Boston to the role. As a volunteer she found she enjoyed assisting clients through the quagmire that can be an immigration application process for a newly arrived refugee who may lack documentation needed for the process.
In 2013 Vikki was offered and accepted a part-time position with RILAS. During this time, Vikki was able to apply novel solutions to an appeal she made to the Immigration Protection Tribunal. In that case, she successfully argued under the previously existing sibling category that a political prisoner who was had mostly likely died in an Ethiopian prison over ten years ago should not disqualify a sister from bringing her last living relative to New Zealand. In 2014, Vikki left RILAS to focus on the requirements she needed to become a lawyer in New Zealand. Once those were complete, Vikki rejoined us in early 2016 as a Community Advocate, and now Community Lawyer.
Being raised by two World War II refugees is pivotal to Vikki’s understanding of the plight of the refugees with whom she works. Both of her parents fled their countries with practically nothing. Vikki’s mother spent many years in a refugee camp in Germany. Her father also spent many years as a refugee in Germany. Through the immigration process, they both were able to start a new life in the USA.
This family history gives Vikki an understanding of what it may be like for her clients. As she explains, “though living in the USA, my family home was very Lithuanian. We ate Lithuania food, attended Lithuanian events and spoke in Lithuanian. When it regained its independence in 1991, we took family trip together to Lithuania to visit relatives that had been left behind. It had a great impact on me and makes me understand what it is like to live with a foot in two countries.” Vikki is looking forward to applying her background and experiences to hopefully many positive outcomes for her clients now facing similar obstacles.