POLITICS

NZ to stop imprisoning people seeking asylum

Tuesday 3 May 2022, 2:09PM
By Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand
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Immigration New Zealand has released an independent review carried out by Victoria Casey QC into the detention in prison of people seeking asylum. The review clearly states detention at Corrections facilities should not occur. In response, Immigration New Zealand has accepted the recommendation, along with others in the review.

Lisa Woods, Campaigns Director for Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand, said, "Today, we celebrate a great human rights win. People seeking asylum should be welcomed, not further traumatised. This review has vindicated what so many in the community have been saying for years -that imprisoning people seeking asylum is wrong."

The independent review by Victoria Casey QC states, "My conclusion is that while very short term detention of some arrivals who claim refugee status at the border may be justified (though the current practice of how this is done must change), the practice of long term detention of refugee claimants in Corrections facilities is wrong, at every level."

Work flowing from the independent review will involve fundamental changes to the laws, policies and practices that have led to the imprisonment of people seeking asylum.

Mustafa Derbashi, General Manager for the Asylum Seekers Support Trust said, "People who seek asylum deserve to have a safe place to build a new home. They are refugees by circumstance, not by choice. They have to be treated with dignity. Seeking asylum is a human right, and it’s great news today that work will be carried out so those who claim asylum here will not be held in criminal detention facilities."

In May 2021, Amnesty International released its first-ever domestic research report Please Take Me To A Safe Place: The Imprisonment of Asylum Seekers in Aotearoa New Zealand. The report documented serious human rights violations against people detained in criminal justice facilities between 2015 and 2020. The research found incidents of rape, physical abuse, being forced into the notorious Mt Eden Prison "fight clubs", being double bunked with remand prisoners, inappropriate food, lack of language services and suicidal ideation.

In 2014 the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention visited Aotearoa New Zealand and raised concerns about the use of criminal justice facilities to detain people seeking asylum. In their report presented to the Human Rights Council in 2015, they recommended the abolishment of this practice. Yet, it continued. And in the following five years, 86 people who had already survived the trauma of war or persecution had to spend months, and sometimes years, locked in New Zealand prisons not knowing when they would get out.

After Amnesty International’s damning report last year, Minister of Immigration Kris Faafoi and Associate Minister Phil Twyford ordered a review into Immigration New Zealand’s processes. The review was released today.

Woods said, "I’d like to thank all those who took part in Amnesty International’s research. They dedicated significant time and emotional energy to sharing what they had been through. Gratitude also goes to the many others in the community who have campaigned over the years to end this inhumane practice.

"People power works. Well deserved thanks go to all the Amnesty Advocates, groups and supporters around the country who signed petitions, held info sessions, met with their MPs and helped shine a light on this injustice. Most people had no idea this was happening in Aotearoa.

"Recognition is also owed to the Asylum Seekers Support Trust, who were instrumental in helping us conduct the human rights research that led to last year’s report. They do such great work with and for people who have been forced to flee their countries."

Amnesty International’s report showed how asylum seekers facing prison are subject to a complex and overwhelming maze of immigration and criminal justice processes. It began with interviews by immigration officials, three to four nights in police custody, appearing in the District Court and ultimately prison. The organisation found that at every stage there were failures to ensure basic rights to a fair process. In addition, the shared lines of responsibility between Immigration and Corrections appeared to be being used as an excuse to shirk responsibility for the abuse occurring, and it meant people were falling through the cracks.

Further excerpts from the independent review by Victoria Casey QC

The independent review states that the Immigration Act establishes a flawed framework, that how the system currently operates is "a recipe for arbitrary detention" and that the "features all combine to present a grim picture of how New Zealand is treating people who claim asylum."

"The most obvious, and most important, alternative to detention in a Corrections facility is for the refugee claimant not to be detained at all. As outlined above, if New Zealand applies a Convention compliant approach to detention of asylum seekers, it seems highly likely that none of them would end up in long term detention. There is no suggestion from my review that any of the 100 or so asylum seekers detained since 2015 would have posed the sort of threat to public safety or risk to national security that could warrant such restrictive measures. I gather New Zealand has also never had a major problem with asylum seekers absconding.

"Prisons represent total loss of freedom and autonomy: every movement and every moment of the day is controlled by the state authority. Society uses this as its most serious form of punishment for its most serious offenders. Refugee claimants have neither committed nor been charged with any criminal offending, and have done nothing to warrant a penalty at all, let alone one of this severity.

"Finally, it is important to keep in mind that this is all occurring to a person who is more likely than not a genuine refugee, who may have already experienced significant trauma (including possibly torture) at the hands of authorities. It is hard to imagine a worse match in terms of vulnerability to put a refugee claimant through this process and place them in this environment. This is also a terrible way to welcome a potential future citizen."