Distrust and disrespect, delays and allegations of discrimination and bullying are outlined in an independent report into the decision-making process for asylum-seekers.
The review paints a picture of relationships between some lawyers and staff at the Refugee Status Branch breaking down and long waits for claimants.
Among its recommendations, the report said the Refugee Status Branch should set out clearer rules and timelines for submitting information, and not subject asylum-seekers to seven-hour interviews.
Report author Victoria Casey QC described high turnover of refugee and protection officers (RPOs), understaffing and problems with the practical implementation of the application process.
“The tension between RPOs and at least some of the lawyers engaged in this field has reached a level that is clearly compromising the proper operation of the system,” she said.
“While these concerns were not shared by all, and the content of the concerns varied considerably between the people I spoke with, reference was made to high levels of perceived disrespect and distrust, to endemic non-compliance with timeframes, and to alleged incidences of discrimination and bullying. These concerns were raised both by practitioners and by RPOs.
“What was apparent to me from my interviews was that both RPOs and practitioners were fed up, and that there was an increasing loss of trust and respect.”
The Refugee Status Branch’s 16 staff conduct about 500 refugee claim interviews every year. Half had been in the job less than two years and five of them less than a year.
That “obviously has consequences in terms of the experience and expertise of the decision makers” and had led to concerns about quality control and asking unnecessary questions in interviews.
The interviews themselves lasted seven hours and were completed in one day,” Ms Casey’s report said.
“While breaks are provided during the day, to an outsider the length and depth of this interview appears to be an extraordinary burden to place on a claimant,” she said. “Answering questions over a seven-hour period is exhausting for any person at the best of times, but the stakes for a refugee claimant are incredibly high.
“It is likely that they will be very anxious and probably will have been so for a considerable period leading up to the interview. In addition, the content of many of the questions and answers, especially towards the end of the interview when the RPO is exploring the basis of the claim, are obviously likely to be harrowing and distressing.”
The RSB should consider interviewing claimants about the events that led them to seek asylum first, leaving background questions until afterwards and possibly spread the interview over two half-days.
A third to a half of all cases rejected by the Refugee Status Branch (RSB) were overturned on appeal to the Immigration and Protection Tribunal (IPT), and Ms Casey said improvements were needed to quality assurance processes.
A ‘second person check’ had failed to pick up an error that led to a Supreme Court case, after a claimant was rejected without an interview.
The report said different information would sometimes be available to the IPT, but recommended refugee officers review those cases that were successfully appealed.
“I understand that the RSB does not currently actively review the IPT decisions for this purpose, or collate or interrogate data that might be informative of whether there are potential quality issues arising in relation to some issues or some individual RPOs, that may warrant further attention.”
About 150 asylum seekers were given refugee status last year and a third of all approved in the last three years were from China.
In a statement, Immigration New Zealand (INZ) it had met with claimant representatives and relevant stakeholders to discuss the review and its recommendations.
“INZ is working through how the recommendations will be implemented; however, this was impacted by INZ’s response to Covid-19,” its general manager of Refugee and Migrant Services, Fiona Whiteridge, said.
“INZ has recently set up a cross-sector joint working group with key stakeholders involved in the refugee and protection status determination process. The group is expected to have its first meeting in mid-July 2020.
“The working group will discuss all the review recommendations, including the procedural timeframes, quality assurance processes and the number and length of interviews. This cross-sector approach will enable stakeholder input to ensure that the system for making refugee and protection status determinations is fit for purpose, supports quality decisions, and is efficient, fair and timely.”
The government had increased its budget from next year, she added, but lockdown and border restrictions had affected decision processing times, with claims now taking an average of a year to be decided.
Full report accessible here