New Zealand Law Society - Refugees & immigration

Refugees & immigration

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Megan Williams, supervisor of Community Law Wellington and Hutt Valley's Refugee and Immigration Legal Advice Service (RILAS) notes that: "Many, if not most, refugee families are torn apart by the conflicts and/or persecution that they flee from.

"Many refugees arrive in New Zealand having become separated from their children, spouses, parents and siblings … We see the anxiety, stress and despair that our refugee clients experience due to separation from family members, particularly when those family members are living in unsafe situations.

"And we see the profound positive impact on refugee clients of being reunited with their family members," she says.

photo of Megan Williams
Megan Williams

RILAS has a 20-year history of assisting refugees who settle in New Zealand to reunite with their family members (through the Family Reunification policy and the Refugee Family Support Category – a quite internationally unique policy promoting the principle of family unity.)

Ms Williams's first legal role was clerking for the Ngai Tahu Māori Law Centre in Dunedin, before an "eye-opening" overseas experience in London saw her join the AIRE Centre (Advice on Individual Rights in Europe) where she assisted an organisation that assists marginalised migrants, particularly refugees and asylum seekers, to navigate the European legal systems and assert their rights.

In the late 2000s Megan returned to Aotearoa, taking a position with Kensington Swan in the Māori legal team. By 2011, her desire to continue working with refugees or vulnerable migrants led to a voluntary position with RILAS, the team she now leads.

Law and policy reform

"I've never referred to myself as an 'activist' or thought of myself in those terms. But when I reflect on my work and beliefs, I guess the term is quite accurate," Ms Williams says.

"We do spend a lot of time advocating for law and policy reform.

"The vision of [Community Law] is 'those with the least should have the same or better access to justice as those with the most' and that really drives the work that we all do."

She says it's a privilege to work with people from a range of fascinating backgrounds and cultures, and to be entrusted with their stories.

It helps her stay connected to world events – upon hearing about the ISIS-affiliated bombings in Beirut last month, her first thought was for the mother of one of her Iraqi clients – and gives some satisfaction that she is assisting those who need it most to access the New Zealand justice system.

"The best part of the job is seeing families reunited," Ms Williams says, adding that sometimes she and her team are invited to Wellington airport to witness the joyous reunions first hand.

Massively rewarding

"Seeing families back together after years of separation is massively rewarding and many of our volunteers remain friends with the clients they have assisted."

While still hoping to see the annual refugee quota lifted from 750 when it is reviewed next year, Ms Williams says she is glad the plight of Syrian refugees in Europe is receiving media and political attention, as her Syrian and Iraqi clients have been raising fears for their families for a long time.

"But my clients also constantly remind me of the many conflicts and human rights abuses going on worldwide that we do not hear so much about. Our clients from South Sudan, Eritrea, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Myanmar, Afghanistan and many other places are desperately worried about the situations that their family members face."

Nevertheless, her team is hurriedly preparing for Wellington's intake of the first Syrians to settle here after the government's announcement of an "emergency intake" earlier this year. Ms Williams says there has been an increased interest from the legal community in volunteering to assist these refugees, and a training for new volunteers will be held early next year, before the March arrival.

Many who work with refugees may not view their work as activism, "although it definitely does help to effect change even in small ways", Ms Williams says.

Some volunteers work at corporate firms and really want the opportunity to work with individual people, others see the international refugee crisis and want to help on a local level.

"I think many of our volunteers are motivated by concern at the difficulties that refugees face and by the idea that volunteering their time and expertise can lead to incredibly positive outcomes in the lives of individuals."

Ultimately, that's what being an "activist" is all about.

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