Exclusive: First arrivals from Nauru recount long wait for freedom

Corazon Miller
Source: 1News

Dressed in the iconic black rugby shirt and a grey hoodie, the Somali man grins and unwraps the colours of the New Zealand flag.

As he sits in the garden of the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre, he cloaks himself in the blue and white banner - embracing the official emblem of the country that's given him safe haven.

The man, who does not want to be named, says he counted each night he spent on Nauru - a total 3285 days - waiting for his chance at a new life.

"The first night I came here, I slept like a baby, I've never slept like that before," he tells 1News in the first interview he's given since arriving in New Zealand three days ago.

He's one of six to arrive in Auckland from Nauru where Australia has an offshore centre that processes asylum seekers. They are the first to arrive as part of a resettlement deal initially offered in 2013.

His fellow refugee, originally from Cameroon, says after years of waiting it's good to finally be free. The man, who also wanted to remain unnamed, was just 29 when he first arrived on the small island situated in the north-east of Australia. That was nine years ago - a length of time he never imagined he'd have to wait.

"You can't go forward, you can't go back, that's what happened to us [after arriving on Nauru]," he says. "I really thank God, because now we are free."

The men will spend the next few weeks at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre, where they will learn a bit about the history and culture of New Zealand, as well as the skills needed to navigate a new future here - before moving on to their new homes.

What they do next, is finally their choice.

Another of the men, who came from Myanmar, says being in New Zealand has given them a future.

"I want to be someone, I don't want people thinking I'm pitiful, I want to be something."

It was the National government, under former Prime Minister John Key, who first made the offer to resettle the refugees in 2013. It was accepted by Australia's then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard. But when the Australian Labor party lost the election not long after, the offer was not taken up.

Years of political haggling followed, as successive Australian governments sought to deter future asylum seekers. But in March this year the deal was finally accepted, allowing 150 refugees to be resettled in New Zealand each year, for the next three years, as part of the annual 1500 quota.

The deal applies to those who have been detained in Australia's offshore detention centre on Nauru - and those who are referred by the UNHCR - the UN's Refugee Agency. It was also agreed the deal won't apply in the future to anyone arriving illegally in Australia via boat.

During her visit to Auckland centre today, deputy high commissioner of the UN Refugee Agency, Kelly T Clements, says since the start of the pandemic those in need of a new home had grown significantly, with recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Myanmar and Ukraine seeing a record 103 million people displaced.

"We are working around the clock to be able to make it possibly for people to travel now that things are open again," she says.

New Zealand's border re-opening has enabled officials here, to meet our 1500 annual quota - for the first time - two years after it was put in place.

And while the recent arrivals from Nauru are enjoying their newfound freedom, they are pleading with the officials not to leave behind those they've left behind.

The latest figures show around 82 refugees remain there, with another 12 still seeking refugee status.

Mangere Refugee Centre manager Qemajl Murati says officials were working hard to bring the full 150 quota from Australia - with the next 10 expected to arrive here as soon as January.