The New Zealand Herald
Rethink of jailing of asylum seekers
Minister ‘convinced’ to act by fellow MPs and pressure from human rights groups
The Government has commissioned an independent review to see if it can “tidy up” its practice of detaining asylum seekers in prison, associate immigration minister Phil Twyford announced yesterday.
The review is in response to recent damning reports of asylum seekers’ treatment in prison, and years-long pressure from Amnesty International and the Asylum Seekers Support Trust.
Twyford admitted Labour MPs Ibrahim Omer and Vanushi Walters “convinced” him that detaining asylum seekers is an “important” area to investigate.
Omer moved to New Zealand from Eritrea as a refugee and Walters emigrated from Sri Lanka as a child with her parents.
“Both voices from outside Parliament and also MPs . . . have all made the case very clearly that we want to be proud of New Zealand’s performance in this area.”
The report, led by Victoria Casey, QC, will investigate whether New Zealand should be detaining asylum seekers, but not their treatment in prison. That’s a matter for Corrections, Twyford said.
It will focus on a selection of detention decisions from the past five years to measure up the practice against human rights obligations.
Amnesty International has said detaining asylum seekers in prison while they wait to be granted refugee status is not accepted among international standards. Twyford admitted this.
“The guidance we get from the United Nations of Human Rights ... is that Corrections facilities should not be used for this purpose.
“At the moment in New Zealand we don’t have dedicated immigration detention facilities, it’s something we are going to have to work through.
The confronting Amnesty report and Herald investigation in May revealed the atrocities people seeking asylum in New Zealand experienced in prison.
Allegations of rape, physical and verbal abuse emerged from some 86 detained asylum seekers in the past five years. One man had to remain in prison for three years while a decision was being made on his application to live in New Zealand.
Three people seeking asylum described being bullied by their cellmates, being unable to contact family members and “feeling low expectations of success” due to their treatment by Immigration NZ.
Others in the Amnesty report spoke of being physically assaulted by other prisoners to the point their bones were broken, feeling forced into prison “fight clubs” and feeling violated during strip searches.
Asylum Seekers Support Trust general manager Tim Maurice was excited about the review.
“The guy that was locked up for three years, letting them know that there’s somebody who is trying to stop this from happening to anybody else in the future . . . [I’m] thinking of them.”
“They haven’t said they will stop using prison. They said they will continue to use [it] while the review is being done, which is disappointing.
“We want them to stop using it now. They know it’s not right.
“But it’s definitely a huge step in the right direction.”
Amnesty International executive director Meg de Ronde said seeing ministers willing to recognise that there is an issue, gives her hope.
“We will keep the pressure up to make sure the Government follows through and stops using prisons to hold people in this way.”
The Government is aiming to have the review finished by year’s end.