Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (UNHCR's World) - New Zealand: Where UNHCR's day begins

UNHCR wakes up to each new day with Legal/Liaison Officer Anna Wang Heed, our staff member closest to the International Date Line.

UNHCR wakes up to each new day with Legal/Liaison Officer Anna Wang Heed, our staff member closest to the International Date Line.

By Anna Wang Heed
UNHCR Legal/Liaison Officer - Auckland, New Zealand

UNHCR wakes up to each new day with Legal/Liaison Officer Anna Wang Heed, our staff member closest to the International Date Line.

Wang Heed's Auckland house is 30 minutes away from the international airport where almost all of New Zealand's roughly 1,000 asylum-seekers a year arrive in the country.

Wang Heed is on extended mission to New Zealand from the UNHCR regional office in Australia. Her job encompasses the range of UNHCR's work in developed countries: advocacy, fund-raising, training, promotion of refugee law and help for individual asylum-seekers. "There's nothing boring or narrow about Anna's work," says Regional Representative Jahanshah Assadi. "It's really multi-dimensional; there's the whole advocacy aspect, and a lot of hands-on work. Almost uniquely, we are key decision-makers in the New Zealand appeals process, which means that Anna is deciding whether an asylum-seeker's case is valid, or not. This is a very real responsibility."

Wang Heed is 35 and Swedish, with an academic background in international law. She speaks five languages in addition to her native tongue (English, French, Spanish, German and Mandarin). Wang Heed began working for UNHCR in China, as a legal officer. After three years, she transferred to Australia. In May 1996, she became the first UNHCR officer to be based in New Zealand year-round. Her husband, a Chinese national, lives mostly in China. He couldn't obtain a work permit in Australia, and finally gave up trying. "It's a typical UNHCR marriage," Wang Heed sighs.

Personal issues aside, Wang Heed's job is clearly a challenge. A normal day's work might mean attending the New Zealand Refugee Status Appeals Authorities, as one of two (or sometimes three) judges. Having read through a full dossier on the asylum-seeker - including information about the country of origin and the original rejection of his or her case - the decision-makers interview the claimant. "I interviewed asylum-seekers in China, and this is exactly the same thing," Wang Heed explains. "It's quite thorough, and it could take all morning, or even a whole day. We're basically going back to the beginning of the whole process, having read all the previous statements and anything else that might be material. We have to decide whether this person really does have a well-founded fear of persecution at home. It's a heavy responsibility and it really confronts you with what all our work is all about."

A typical case up for appeal might be a person loosely involved with the Sikh movement in the Punjab, and who may have obtained a visitor's permit to New Zealand and claimed asylum on arrival. Many such cases are rejected, because the judges feel there is unlikely to be ongoing persecution by Indian authorities in the Punjab. Other appeals may stem from Iranians, who arrive via South-East Asia, where they often purchase false passports and visas from unscrupulous migrant smugglers and ditch them before they land.

But Wang Heed isn't just a judge - she's a trainer, an advocate, a fund-raiser. New Zealand enjoys a liberal body of jurisprudence regarding asylum issues, including claims for refugee status based on women's issues such as female genital mutilation and refusal to comply with social strictures. In addition to asylum-seekers who arrive in New Zealand directly, the country also accepts roughly 800 refugees every year under a resettlement quota, giving asylum to people who have fled their homes, but who are not safe in their country of first asylum. In addition, New Zealand recently announced it would increase its contribution to UNHCR by 25 percent. It's a remarkable record.

Wang Heed works to keep it going. "We're the only U.N. presence here, so there's a lot of interest and a lot of demand, from NGOs, from the public, and of course from asylum-seekers as well," she says. "You get all kinds of enquiries. New Zealand is far away - far from a lot of things - and the public isn't necessarily attuned to refugee issues. Until recently, there wasn't a lot of immigration here from developing countries, and with Somalis or Ethiopians, who suddenly look very different, we have seen a few very nasty attacks on refugees' homes in recent months. You have to work to inform the public, so that people see that refugees are not a threat to anyone."

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (1996)