The number of asylum seekers is back on the rise as borders reopen around the world, with shocking stories of people escaping war or persecution only to be stuck in a painful limbo that can drag on for years.  

That’s if they survive dangerous boat trips, time in crowded prison cells and camps where lawlessness is rife. 

Of the 4.6 million asylum seekers identified by the United Nations, just a few hundred get to Aotearoa every year and fewer than half are given refugee status.  

“It’s just a very small drop in the bucket,” says University of Auckland’s Professor Jay Marlowe, co-director for the centre for Asia Pacific Refugee Studies.  

“We’re talking about 0.001 percent of the world’s asylum seekers coming through the New Zealand system.” 

Even though the numbers are small, they don’t get the same treatment as refugees coming to New Zealand through the quota system. 

“The idea that we would actually support them to pursue these claims, which they are legally entitled to do, is not a radical ask. It’s actually about the principle of fairness and preventing them from going into destitution.”  

And revelations that 158 asylum seekers have been caught in a visa fraud show New Zealand is not the perfect haven. 

The Detail talks to RNZ’s immigration reporter Gill Bonnett about how she came across the scam – in which people claimed to be in danger from loan sharks – and how it was discovered by immigration officials. 

More will be revealed about the case when it goes to court – an interpreter faces five charges and all but two of the asylum seekers have had their claims withdrawn or dismissed. 

Bonnett explains how she noticed a lot of similar stories cropping up in appeals to the Immigration and Protection Tribunal. She realised Immigration New Zealand had already joined the dots and had made submissions to the tribunal that it believed there was a group trying to exploit the refugee system. 

It’s not clear at this stage whether those caught up in it knew about the scam before they arrived in the country, or whether it was a well-organised scheme. 

“These were potentially really vulnerable people who came here believing that they would be able to work and pay back a debt possibly,” she says. 

Marlowe says asylum seekers are often tainted by stories of bogus claims. 

“Even people whose applications aren’t successful, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re actually trying to game the system. It’s that they haven’t met that high threshold,” he says. 

Marlowe has co-written a report called Safe Start Fair Futures, which calls for all refugees to be treated equally and fairly. 

He explains how quota refugees differ from asylum seekers, who become refugees if their claims are successful. 

“For many people the refugee process is a deeply traumatising experience, one that is characterised by a culture of mistrust at times. That’s not to say the entire system is like that, but for many people, the experiences can be very harrowing, very long interview processes, feeling like they are not believed.” 

Last month, an independent review criticised Immigration New Zealand’s asylum seeker detention policies as inhumane and contrary to New Zealand values.  

It found long-term detention is “wrong at every level” and called for a change to the law that means asylum seekers can be held in prison if they arrive on false documents, are considered a security risk or make a claim while here illegally. 

Immigration New Zealand says from 2015 to 2020, 86 of the 2655 asylum seekers who arrived here were detained. It says no asylum seekers have been detained for two years. 

Marlowe says his report has also had positive response from the Government, but now it is time for action. 

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Sharon Brettkelly is co-host of The Detail podcast.

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