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The Unfriendly Isles

Noel O'Hare

We invite them to live here, then set them up for failure. Immigrants and refugees have a tough time settling in New Zealand, and it's costing them - and us - dearly.

In August 2002, Louisa Lee tried to kill herself for the eighth time. Since Lee migrated here with her husband and daughter from Hong Kong in the early 1990s, her life has been a well of unhappiness. She came to New Zealand because her husband wanted to, but she has never settled and still desperately misses her family and her homeland. Unable to speak English well or engage with the New Zealand way of life, she found her life beginning to unravel. "My marriage began to break down, so around 1994 I separated from my husband. We tried to unite in 1996, but the marriage was very unstable. I became depressed. My health was poor. During this time my husband began to have affairs with other women. My depression got worse. I began to isolate myself, I was afraid to see people … I didn't realise I was suffering from mental illness. When it became too hard to bear, I tried to overdose on drugs."

New Zealand prides itself on being a friendly, easygoing country, yet for some immigrants and many refugees this green and pleasant land is a toxic environment where they become socially isolated, culturally adrift, wracked by loneliness and homesickness, racially abused and discriminated against by employers. These lives of quiet desperation we only glimpse through the occasional newspaper headline. Last week, police shot dead Iraqi refugee Haidar Ebbadi Mahdi, who was attacking his wife with a carving knife. He was reportedly suffering from mental illness.

New Zealand has never been particularly welcoming to immigrants, but a National Business Review-Phillip Fox poll this month suggested that attitudes of ordinary New Zealanders to non-white immigrants are hardening. In that poll, 45% of those questioned thought there were too many Asian immigrants, 39% thought they were too many from the Pacific Islands and 39% thought we had let in too many from the Middle East. Ironically, the increased xenophobia coincides with skill shortages right across a booming economy and a new "invitation only" immigration system that appears to target white Anglo-Saxon migrants when the big talent pools that would make a high-tech economy viable here are in China, India and Eastern Europe.

Never mind the price tag of trying to maintain a little Britain in the South Pacific, the failure to use the skills of migrants already here could put our prosperity at risk. "Employers do show a reluctance to employ new immigrants, particularly those who don't have a British surname, perhaps have an accent or don't have New Zealand experience," says sociologist Professor Paul Spoonley. That reluctance may be costing the economy billions of dollars. No one has tried to quantify the loss to New Zealand, but a Canadian immigration report estimated that the undervaluing of immigrant skills was costing Canada "as high as $15 billion annually". That's not factoring in immigrant links to the home country, which include

knowledge of home-country market, language, preferences and business contacts. US research shows that immigrant links to the home country have a strong, positive impact on exports and imports.

The social costs of our unwelcoming attitude to migrants may also be considerable. Last year, a report by the Asian Public Health Project identified mental health as "the most important health concern for Asian communities" in Auckland. Migration, the report said, "acted as a catalyst for mental health problems". Studies have shown that migration can affect physical health through dietary changes, exposure to local viruses and diseases and lowered immunity due to stress, but in itself does not cause mental disorder. However, as Ruth de Souza, a nurse educator who has written extensively about migrant mental health, says, "migrants have poorer mental health than the people they leave behind in the country of origin. And they have poorer mental health than the people in the country they've migrated to. There's something about the migration process that's very stressful."

Particularly in New Zealand. This country is about 30 years behind Australia and Canada in its resettlement policy for migrants, says Spoonley. "We do very little for them. We don't provide them with very much by way of support or monitoring once they've entered the country. There is support, but it tends to be oriented at problems and be reactive rather than proactive." In contrast, Australia, despite its tough stance on asylum-seekers, has a comprehensive resettlement programme for migrants and refugees that includes up to 510 free hours of English language tuition, skilled migrant job placement programmes and specialised migrant health teams.

Back in the 1970s, Australia and Canada adopted multiculturalism as official policy, but in New Zealand our focus has always been on biculturalism. Spoonley believes that neoliberal policies from 1984 onwards meant our immigration policy remained "hands off". "We tend to pick skilled people or people who've got venture capital and then we expect them to know how to operate once they get here."

Even for the well prepared that can be difficult. "We've got friends who try to start a business here, but the market is so small, it's so different," says Anne Ho, whose life fell apart when two businesses failed (see box, page 18). John Wong came here from Hong Kong in 1992 to set up an import-export business. He spoke English well, but Kiwis found his accent difficult to understand and vice versa. "For the first year I told my wife I speak English more in Hong Kong than in New Zealand, because I don't have friends who speak English."

Because of local monopolies, his attempts to set up a business came to nothing. The family were very homesick and unsettled. "My wife cried every day for two years. I didn't know how to deal with it." He became a volunteer social worker in the Chinese community "with the thought that I learn some skills to handle my family by helping other people".

He studied for degrees in counselling and is now manager of Problem Gambling Foundation's Asian services (problem gambling among Asian migrants is on the increase). He finds the work rewarding, though it pays a lot less than he used to earn as a businessman. His friends, he says, have not been so lucky. "Some of my friends who have been in New Zealand for 10 years have still not settled. They're still trying to find the job they want. Some are unemployed, some underemployed."

Auckland psychiatrist Dr Sai Wong sees the results of our poor resettlement programme every day. Failure to find suitable employment is a key contributor to mental illness in migrants, he says. "They come here with the illusion that New Zealand is a paradise, that their skills are welcome here and they can settle down with no difficulty and get employment."

Dr Anne Henderson of Massey University's New Settlers Programme knows from her research just how big an illusion that can be. Henderson followed the fortunes of a group of skilled thirtysomething Chinese migrants from 1998 to 2001. All had been employed in managerial/administrative positions before immigration and had a good basic level of English language proficiency. Four years on, only half were in some form of employment, many working only part-time and most were underemployed. Many had used the time to obtain New Zealand qualifications, including MBAs.

But employers, says Henderson, insisted on New Zealand qualifications and New Zealand work experience. Migrants could obtain the former, but the latter left them in a catch-22 situation. Nor was it enough to speak good English. A New Zealand accent was often an additional requirement. "In the English language proficiency study I did," says Henderson, "some recruitment agents for middle- and senior-level positions stipulated the requirement of having a New Zealand accent." One government employment agent deemed a Chinese engineer with very good English and studying for a master's degree unsuitable for a position at a McDonald's outlet, because she "did not have New Zealand English".

"If you don't succeed in the labour market and you don't succeed economically, then practically everything else is more or less doomed to failure," says Spoonley.

Migrant stress levels rise from the moment they land at Auckland Airport. The Immigration Service provides no orientation programme or follow-up. If immigrants manage to find their way to the Auckland Regional Migrant Resource Centre in Three Kings, opened only last year, they will receive plenty of advice on settlement, employment and language tuition. With its multilingual friendly staff, the centre is a one-stop shop and a model for resettlement services, but it is only one in the vast sprawl of Auckland, a city with poor public transport. The centre, which has an outreach office in Manukau, can only do so much. "We have people with scientific and engineering skills who have been here for more than five years and are not employed," says settlement services co-ordinator Asoka Basnayake.

Teachers also find it difficult to get jobs, says Penny Jorgensen, the centre's executive director. "The requirements for immigration and the requirements for registration [as a teacher] are very different and it's never been made explicit. So they come here on the basis of their teaching qualifications and can't register. We suspect it's the same with other qualifications, particularly those with a registration component, such as engineering."

The simplistic solution is to insist that migrants have a job offer before they are allowed in. "Job offers are not actually jobs or they may not pan out or may break down for other reasons," says Jorgensen. "I don't think, for instance, you can force people to live in Dunedin once they're here. If they want to move to Auckland, they'll move there." Jorgensen cites the example of an employer who brought over a skilled migrant to help expand his business. "The whole thing fell over very quickly because this new migrant had bought a car and had been ripped off in the process. He was involved in an accident and the car was written off. He wasn't insured. He spent all his time sorting out the problem with the car so he could just get to work every day, then lost his job."

An immigration policy that focuses simply on employment while ignoring other settler needs does not work, says Jorgensen. Migrants, for example, can find it very difficult to hold down a job when they've got partners at home who are depressed and not coping. "What we know is if someone's depressed, half the partners will also be depressed," says de Souza. "It runs in families and it's catching. You can't help but be affected by it."

The incidence of poor mental health among migrants is unknown because much of it goes undiagnosed. Research in Auckland found that 27% of elderly Chinese had depression that would have required treatment, says Sai Wong. However, many Asian migrants are reluctant to seek help because of the strong stigma attached to mental illness. Instead, they may go to their GPs with headaches, insomnia, unexplained pains. "The GPs have no time to explore further and they take it for granted that they're hypochondriacs or whatever," says Sai Wong. "But if you ask, it's there. Somatic problems are commonly presented, but most are related to an underlying depressive state." It's only when the mental illness is severe that many Asian migrants will seek help from mental health services.

And that help is seldom adequate. Apart from the cross-cultural difficulties, interpretation is often problematic. "When you go to a mental health service with an interpreter, it's like talking through a veil," says Sai Wong. "Often things get downplayed or somehow misinterpreted. Sometimes interpreters not only interpret but advise the patient what to say. The health-care giver is not aware of the immensity or the severity of that distortion." Migrants also worry that interpreters may not have the same constraints of confidentiality and their personal affairs will become the talk of the small community. Adding to the difficulty is what Wong calls "migrant paranoia". They worry that their mental health difficulties will be recorded on the computer and count against them when they apply for citizenship.

The same official indifference to the health and welfare of migrants is experienced by an even more needy group, refugees. Initially, refugees do better than migrants. They have six weeks' orientation and health screening at Mangere Refugee Resource Centre. They are helped to find accommodation, given a benefit and assisted for six months in settling by a volunteer sponsor from the Refugee Migrant Service (RMS).

Many refugees have mental health problems. Overseas research estimates the number at more than 50 percent, "ranging from chronic mental disorders to trauma, distress and a great deal of suffering". Caught up in the daily struggle to build a new life, however, refugees often put their mental anguish down to the difficulties of finding a job or separation from family, says Wong. "They think that pathological depression is just a common variety of unhappiness."

Medical intervention, though, may not be the answer. A study of Australian refugees found that practical help such as finding a job and securing stable housing for refugees "may be much more therapeutic than Western-style psychiatric interventions". For refugees often overwhelmed with guilt at having to leave behind family members, family reunification can be an obsession. Mental health services, however, are not designed or funded for those sorts of interventions.

Bernard and Pauline Guerin of Waikato University have been involved with the large community of Somali refugees in Hamilton for five years. "At one time all the Somali women in one street were on antidepressants," says Pauline Guerin. "They didn't know what it was called, how they were supposed to take it or when it was going to work. All they knew was 'my doctor gave me a happy pill'. One woman came to the house and emptied out a whole shopping bag of anti-psychotics, antidepressants. 'This is the way I get treated when I complain about my problems.'"

In the main centres, Refugee Migrant Service volunteers do their best to help refugees settle. "But I fear the reality is overwhelming for volunteers," says Dr Love Chile. "Take a Somali woman who has lived in a refugee camp with two or three children for nine years and relocated to a state house in New Lynn. It's not a pretty picture." Chile, programme director of Unitec's School of Health and Community Studies, has been deeply involved with New Zealand's African community since he came here 18 years ago.

Lack of support for refugees means New Zealand is importing an underclass, believes Chile. "The majority of refugees have low language skills and are unable to access high-paying jobs. The majority of them are on a benefit." From that survival benefit, many send monthly sums as high as $500 back to their

families overseas or take loans to do so. "There is little opportunity to break through the poverty cycle."

Though English language acquisition is the key to upward mobility and access to services, language support is quite minimal in New Zealand compared to other countries, and it's classroom-based, says Spoonley. "In places like Israel, they would offer an extensive programme that would be done at the place of work, combining work experience with language that's relevant to the workplace."

Chile advocates intensive English language training for teachers already in the immigrant communities so that they can set up their own classes. That, he says, has the advantage of creating leaders who are able to work not only with their own ethnic groups but also link with the wider community.

Nearly 17,000 refugees have arrived in New Zealand over the past 25 years, but there is still no refugee-specific employment placement service, apart from a few recent pilot schemes. According to a recent report on a refugee resettlement programme funded by the J R McKenzie Trust, negative attitudes of some employers were a significant barrier to refugee employment and "the level of discrimination encountered appears to increase with the skill level for the job". WINZ, according to some project staff, "takes punitive views of refugees" and pushes them into dead-end jobs to get them off the benefit.

In the absence of any national strategy, resettlement assistance can vary widely and is virtually non-existent outside the main centres. Selwyn College, in Auckland, sets a benchmark for community support of refugees. The college has not only taken the Kosovar refugees who arrived here without warning in 1999, but also the Tampa boys in 2002. The college has become a community hub for Kosovar, Afghan and Burmese refugees. It set up English classes for mothers and grandmothers, who are often left out of the assistance loop, and now has a preschool centre where parents can leave their children while they learn English. College staff help refugees with everything from getting a driver's licence to forcefully advocating for them when they get ripped off. "Refugees really need help for four or five years down the track," says Selwyn teacher Margaret Chitterden. "There is very little follow-up to see what happens."

The Immigration Service has begun a research project to inquire into the resettlement experiences of refugees. In its report "Refugee Voices", released last month, it found that a number of service providers felt that refugee mental health "was an area of serious concern … One-third of recently arrived refugees at six months said they had experienced emotional problems since coming to New Zealand." In 1997, Chile says, he wrote to the then Minister of Health, Bill English, warning that some refugees with unresolved trauma and stressed by culture shock could be "walking timebombs", but nothing was done. Though organisations like Refugees as Survivors (RAS) are now better resourced, the situation is far from satisfactory, he says. Young refugees are a particular concern. "Some of these children have been born in refugee camps and you don't know what events have shaped their lives."

According to recent newspaper reports, community workers are "up to their eyeballs" with clients suffering from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other disorders. In Wellington, 93 young people aged under 20 are waiting to be seen by the mental health team at Wellington Hospital. Some have waited for nearly six months. "We need to be proactive, rather than wait until something happens, especially with young people," says Chile.

Marginalisation has been shown to be associated with the poorest mental health, and migrants and refugees with poor English have been among the most marginalised here for decades. Belatedly, this year's Budget allocated $62.39 million over the next four years for resettlement initiatives, including the development of a national strategy and employment and language services. But it has come too late for many. As the McKenzie report says, "The waste of potential is illustrated by poignant anecdotes of Vietnamese and Lao employees, who came to New Zealand 20 years ago and are in low-skill jobs for life, despite their potential to develop further."

Access to services and jobs are important, but attitudes can also make a real difference to how well migrants and refugees resettle. Although politicians attack migrants for "taking taxpayers for a ride" by claiming sickness and hardship benefits, a recent Victoria University survey found that a majority of New Zealanders are accepting of immigrants, but they have little to do with them. Those at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap who have most contact with them often perceive them as a threat. Chile was called in recently to sort out a dispute for an African migrant family who bought a house in South Auckland. "The people next door set the dog on the woman of the house and the children have been beaten up." In Glen Innes, some Burmese have had a rough time, says Selwyn College's Roy Clements. "The Burmese people are small," he says, and members of one more long-standing migrant group are large and "given to bullying. Some [Burmese] last year were feeling embattled. A whole family would never leave the house."

Once stereotypes take hold, they can be hard to dislodge. In Auckland recently, teams of Korean students have been picking up rubbish in the central city to counter the perception that all Asians litter. As Elsie Ho of Waikato University's Migration Research Group says, "Whether migrants adjust to a new environment is really a two-way process. It's not just themselves, it's everybody's reaction."

Copyright 2004, Used with permission from the New Zealand Listener.

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