New Zealand seeks power to detain asylum seekers

A country with a good track record of implementing positive refugee policy is set to become more stern towards asylum-seekers – a proposed move that is already attracting criticism.

New Zealand faces an ongoing risk of a mass arrival of illegal migrants, says a policy statement in the Immigration Amendment Bill.

“People-smuggling is a global criminal enterprise and people-smuggling networks in Southeast Asia and elsewhere are large and growing. People-smuggling operations based in Southeast Asia have arranged ventures to as far afield as Canada, so New Zealand’s comparative geographical isolation does not guarantee it will not be a target in future.”

The Bill aims to make New Zealand “as unattractive as possible to people-smugglers” and if passed, will allow for the mandatory detention of illegal migrants of up to 6 months and further periods of detention for up to 28 days with court approval. It also empowers the government to suspend “the processing of refugee and protection claims by regulation”.

However, New Zealand’s Human Rights Commission says the proposed changes threaten New Zealand’s obligations under the UN Refugee Convention and potentially lack compliance with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.

The Commission is particularly concerned about the introduction of mandatory detention under group warrants, the restrictions on family reunification,  and the changes to review processes.

Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres says New Zealand has obligations under the Refugee Convention that are separate and independent of the country’s voluntary quota of 750 refugees as part of its annual resettlement quota on behalf of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

New Zealand has obligations as a party to the Refugee Convention to:

  • ensure that people who meet the United Nations definition of refugee are granted asylum
  • not to impose any penalties on an asylum seeker based on their mode of entry to New Zealand (Article 31).

“How an asylum seeker arrives in New Zealand should have no bearing on their right to apply for refugee status and protection,” says de Bres.

Mandatory detention on the basis of group warrants also raised issues of reasonableness and ultimately could amount to arbitrary detention breaching section 22 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, the commission says.

“New Zealand must protect the human rights of all asylum seekers and refugees who arrive in New Zealand, regardless of how or where they arrive, and whether they arrive with or without a visa,” says de Bres.

The changes were described as “an over-reaction” by Professor Max Abbott, director of AUT University’s Centre for Migrant and Refugee Research.

“Copying aspects of the harsh Australian approach to asylum seekers will damage New Zealand’s positive reputation in refugee and humanitarian matters. It is unlikely to act as a deterrent and could drag asylum and refugee issues into a highly charged political arena that will be socially divisive and destructive.”

The Australian treatment of ‘boat people’ through mass detention under harsh conditions has tarnished that country’s reputation and been an embarrassment to fair-minded Australians, says Professor Abbott.


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