Helping Burmese Refugees Start New Lives in New Zealand

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 18 August 2014

Sparsely populated New Zealand could be said to be punching above its wait in terms of Burmese refugee intake. About 2,000 Burmese, largely coming from refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border, now live in the island nation of 4.4 million people.

Annie Coates, an ethnic Karen woman who has lived in the capital Wellington for more than 30 years, is helping those transplants adjust to life in the southern hemisphere, working with the refugee community on health, education and other social issues. In 2009, she received the Prime Minister’s Social Hero Award in recognition of her work.

Formerly with the ChangeMakers Refugee Forum, Coates now works independently, volunteering her time to teach English, assist with job hunting and even babysitting for refugees. The Irrawaddy spoke with Coates in Wellington about her role in supporting the Burmese refugee community in New Zealand.

Question: How do you help Burmese refugees in New Zealand?

Answer: I was working many jobs in the past, when Burmese refugees began coming to New Zealand in the 2000s. At that time, I took leave to help them. I was what’s called a cross-cultural worker. I helped them to rent houses and with health issues, because at that time, there was a language barrier in communicating with Kiwis [New Zealand citizens]. For social support, I helped them by, for example, staying overnight to babysit. I am not actually a qualified social worker, but just serve in a supporting role.

Most of them are young people and they do not have any relatives in New Zealand, so I become automatically their mother or grandmother. There are 38 children I have been taking care of here. And also I’m helping to recommend some Burmese who apply for visas to come here who are the wives or husbands of people here.

Q: How many Burmese are there living in New Zealand? Are they all refugees from the Thai-Burma border camps?

A: Almost 2,000 Burmese are living here. Mostly they are living in the biggest city, Auckland. More than half the total Burmese are living there. About 200 live in Wellington, and also Nelson. Most of them grew up on the Thai-Burma border, ethnic Karen and Kayah [Karenni] from Burma. But ethnic Chinese and Rakhine [Arakanese] are coming from Malaysia.

They might be economic refugees who are here to seek jobs. But they come here without a visa as there is a lot of corruption in Malaysia. There are many Burmese who queue in front of the UNHCR [UN High Commissioner for Refugees] office in Malaysia to get here. If someone is arrested by Malaysian police, the UNHCR issues refugee cards for them, so some are intentionally paying bribes to police to arrest them, so they can easily get refugee cards and come here. There are no official refugee camps in Malaysia, but there are detention facilities holding some Burmese people.

Q: Are you supporting all of them or do you have to be selective, given the number of Burmese refugees coming to New Zealand?

A: I am helping them through social humanitarian activities; there is not a political agenda. I support whoever needs support. I help them using my own money. While I was working in cross-cultural support in refugee services, there were barriers to helping them, like forbidding emotional attachment [to refugees]. That’s why after my contract ended, I decided to independently support Burmese refugees myself.

Q: Can these refugees become New Zealand citizens?

A: They have been granted permanent resident status. After five years, they can apply for citizenship here. After they have been granted citizenship, some people take a chance and move to Australia.

Q: What about job opportunities for Burmese refugees here? Is it easy for them to find employment?

A: There are a lot of job-seeking agencies for them here. After they get to New Zealand, they receive an orientation; they are taught the English language and also undergo a skills assessment. If they provide some information about their background [such as education and work histories] in Malaysia or Thailand, it’s easy to access jobs. But some people still have difficulties getting a job here. The problem is the language barrier, though there are many job vacancies here. Some people get a chance to study here while working at the same time. As long as they’re trying hard, staying here is good for them.

Q: Is it true that some Rohingya refugees are also coming to New Zealand?

A: I have heard about that, but no one here in Wellington. Some have lived on the Thai-Burma border for a long time as refugees. They are registered in the UN list as Karen, but the names on their ID cards are Muslim names. However they can speak the Karen language very well.