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Immigration New Zealand (INZ) staff support those impacted by the situation in the Middle East

Immigration New Zealand (INZ) staff talk about their work in the Middle East helping people impacted by the situation there.

22 November 2023
6 minute read

When the current situation in the Middle East broke out, Immigration New Zealand (INZ) people in the region were ready to help. Lisa Oldridge, a Refugee Quota Selection Officer and Jesse Evenblij, an Airline Liaison Officer share their experiences from the Middle East, and Antoinette Tanguay, Manager of the Refugee Quota Selection team, tells of the behind-the-scenes mahi (work) in New Zealand.

Antoinette: On Saturday, 30 September 2023, 3 members of the INZ Refugee Quota Programme (RQP) team travelled to Lebanon to complete a 2-and-a-half-week refugee selection mission. The mission was led by Lisa Oldridge.

The objective was to interview 54 refugee families living under the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on the outskirts of Beirut and in refugee camps on the Syria and Lebanon border.

All RQP selection missions are planned in line with MBIE's [Ministry of Business, Innovation and Enterprise] safety and security procedures for international travel. This involves a thorough security risk assessment and detailed keep-in-touch and emergency response plan in the event of any issues on the ground.

Jesse: The role of an Airline Liaison Officer (ALO) is to keep risk offshore and facilitate genuine travellers, but it's a lot more than that. We build relationships with airlines, local authorities and ALOs from other countries and use those relationships to strengthen our border control systems and processes.

There's many dimensions and elements to the ALO role and it's the best job I've had in my life.

Lisa: Dina Wahid, a fellow Refugee Quota Selection Officer, Marie Cameron, a Senior Resettlement Case Officer and I were interviewing approximately 300 Syrian refugees: 200 in Lebanon face-to-face, and 100 remotely who were based in Iraq.

We’d completed 1 week of interviews. Our day generally consisted of Dina and I seeing 3 families each, for a period of 3 hours. We would complete the INZ residence form, declarations, general interview and collecting basic information. Marie would then meet with all 6 families each day to discuss specific resettlement needs and what they could expect in New Zealand.

I recall phoning our management team on Saturday, 7 October Lebanon time to tell them that conflict had broken out in Israel and Gaza.

Antoinette: When Lisa contacted us, she was already in touch with the United Nations Department of Safety and Security and International Organisation for Migration (IOM), so the team were well supported with updates on the situation.

On the New Zealand side, RQP management provided updates to MBIE [Ministry of Business, Innovation and Enterprise] Protective Security. We also set up a Signal group for key management and mission team members to ensure clear and real time comms [communications] channel was up and running.

Flights were urgently rebooked. Lisa and the team flew out to Dubai less than 48 hours since the first reports of conflict in Israel and Gaza.

Lisa: When we landed in Dubai, we agreed with the management team to continue interviewing the cases remotely. This presented a number of challenges, as face-to-face is always best, but we were grateful to be able to complete at least half of the second week of refugee interviews remotely. A number of Syrian refugees spoke about their concern that they had escaped one war and were now witnessing another one start.

Antoinette: While the mission team had a well-deserved rest on the Monday, our RQP team in Auckland worked with IOM to coordinate remote interviews. IOM Lebanon were extremely flexible and accommodating to our request, and the majority of the scheduled interviews were able to completed.

Lisa: I continued to remote interview during the day and travelled to Abu Dhabi during the evening to meet up with Jesse, Hamish [McGregor, Border Liaison Manager] and our Ministry of Foreign Affairs [MFAT] kaimahi [employees].

Jesse: Initially Hamish and I thought there were going to be more immigration-related issues but it turned into assisting our fellow citizens, residents and also our friends of the Pacific.

We worked closely with MFAT kaimahi [employees] at the New Zealand Embassy to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and in Wellington. With my experience dealing with vulnerable people, I was tasked with a couple of very sensitive cases which had great resolutions.

Lisa: We greeted people arriving from Tel Aviv, ensuring they were supported with onward plans and providing a friendly face to say Kia Ora [hello].

Jesse: As an ALO, you have contacts in the region, including with MFAT’s chosen airline partner Etihad Airways. Even simple questions like, "Can you confirm these New Zealanders made it on the flight from Tel Aviv?" just from a call is invaluable.

We escorted people to check-in counters, to get coffee, to call their families. One person said, “I never expected this sort of support. You have no idea how much you being here means to me.”

We also worked with our friends across the ditch in Australia as they assisted with some extractions out of Israel into the UAE on our behalf.

Lisa: It was a humbling experience to support the first family arriving back. While the words were limited, the relief on the family’s faces said it all. I remember the dad saying he couldn’t talk otherwise he would tear up further. Others spoke of how grateful they were for being able to leave.

We are privileged to be able to do this work and in the support we have from our colleagues. This was my first multi-agency response with the New Zealand Government and it was really positive. The colleagues that I worked with were really supportive and an absolute pleasure to collaborate with.

Jesse: There was one moment when I was at the passenger exit from immigration into the arrivals hall. I was holding a sign that said ‘New Zealand’ and wearing my high vis vest.

One New Zealander just stopped at the exit doors and smiled. Tears started rolling down her face. She stood there for a few moments in disbelief and just came up to me and said, “Thank you,” and gave me a hug.

I knew right then that these countless hours, very little sleep, the worry and the emotions were all worth it just for the people of New Zealand to know someone is there for them.