Asylum seekers sleeping in cars and on the streets

By Sharon Brettkelly for Radio New Zealand
(See original RNZ page here.)

A group that houses asylum seekers in Auckland says some are being forced to sleep in cars and on the streets because it has run out of room.

Asylum Seekers Support Trust's Freyja Stocker and chief executive, Marian Kleist.

Caption: Asylum Seekers Support Trust’s Freyja Stocker and chief executive, Marian Kleist. Photo: RNZ / Sharon Brettkelly.

When a family of five turned up on the doorstep of Asylum Seekers Support Trust looking for shelter, chief executive Marian Kleist found herself thinking desperate thoughts. “If only you had a car, because then you could at least spend the night in the car. “And I was pretty horrified that I thought that, but I think that’s what it comes down to and I’m not the only person in the community sector who feels desperate about families who come to us who are homeless and need help,” she said.

The trust – the only group with a hostel for asylum seekers in Auckland – said some were being forced to sleep in cars and on the streets because it has run out of room. She said she had found a place for the family, two parents and their three children, at a campground before they were moved to a temporary flat. But they were not alone.

The trust’s social worker and hostel manager Freyja Stocker said one asylum seeker ended up sleeping in a car with a homeless man. “It says a lot about who’s helping that the person that gave this person shelter was someone who had no shelter themselves,” she said.

The trust's social worker and hostel manager Freyja Stocker.

Caption: Asylum Seekers Support Trust’s social worker and hostel manager Freyja Stocker. Photo: RNZ / Sharon Brettkelly.

Ms Kleist said the trust was struggling to move people from its own hostel because of the city’s desperate shortage of affordable housing. “We for the last six months have been putting the word out to everybody, to lawyers and other community organisations that refer people to us to stop doing that and we have been turning people away,” Ms Kleist said. But lawyers said that left them to find beds, feed them and act as social workers for vulnerable people seeking protection in New Zealand after fleeing life threatening situations in their own countries.

Barrister Maithili Sreen said in one case she tried 30 different places for a client who had slept three nights outside a church. She said it was jeopardising their chances of getting refugee status and staying in New Zealand. “When they don’t have housing they don’t have the basic needs to help them prepare for their refugee case which is so incredibly important because that determines whether they get to stay in New Zealand and have a safe future.”

Refugee claimants often faced difficult, day-long interviews about their past. “We’ve got victims of torture so they’ve being asked about their torture, sexual assaults. “And to be able to talk about that you have to know that you’ve got the basics sorted,” she said.

Deborah Manning, a member of the Refugee Council's executive and a lawyer specialising in refugee law.

Caption: A lawyer specialising in refugee law, Deborah Manning. Photo: SUPPLIED

Lawyer Deborah Manning said homeless asylum seekers were asking for help at her office at least every two weeks, sometimes weekly.

“I know that its too much for our chambers for all of these constant social work needs that we’re having to deal with, and when you’ve got the hostel shutting its doors, it’s basically saying this is your problem now lawyers and so we’re becoming a de facto hostel service for refugee claimants.

“Frankly I can’t see any leadership in this sector for a solution to this problem,” she said.

The Ministry for Business Innovation and Employment said a record 369 people applied for refugee status in the first 10 months of the 2016/ 2017 financial year, 30 more than the entire 12 months last year.

Asylum Seekers Support Trust helped 190 people in the 2015/2016 year, including 60 who lived in its emergency and transitional accommodation. Ms Kleist said the charity, which operates on $216,000 a year and no government funding, could not afford to provide more beds. The government needed to fund another hostel, she said.

She also wanted the government to include asylum seekers in the national refugee resettlement strategy so that they received the same support as quota refugees.

Ms Manning said the government was deliberately making it difficult for asylum seekers. “There’s bigger factors at play because we’re also finding a lot of our clients are homeless because they aren’t being given work visas or they’re not able to get access to their social security quickly and underlying most of these problems is the fact that the New Zealand executive do not want refugee claimants coming.”

The Minister for Immigration Michael Woodhouse was not available.

No requirement for asylum seekers to live in Auckland

In a statement Immigration NZ National Manager, Refugee Division, Andrew Lockhart said around 90 percent of asylum seekers arrived in New Zealand on valid visas or were issued visas on arrival and lived in the community.

“It should be noted that there is no requirement for asylum seekers to live in Auckland and a number of claimants are based in other areas of New Zealand,” Mr Lockhart said.

In general, he said, on first claim, an adult asylum seeker who was able to work was eligible to apply for an asylum work visa, which enabled the asylum seeker to find work and support themselves. They were also entitled to access benefits when they were not working, including support for housing. Asylum seekers were also eligible for publicly funded health.

The Refugee Resettlement Strategy was not intended to cover asylum seekers given that their status had yet to be determined and the strategy focused on successful long term settlement, Mr Lockhart said.