A draft law proposes changes to the Immigration Act 2009, defining “mass arrival” as a group of 10 people or more, and allowing for up to a six month detention period for asylum seekers during processing.
Report – By Mohamed Hassan
New Zealand’s Immigration Amendment Bill designed to lock up asylum seekers has stirred up a strong public backlash and has been challenged in a popular social media video declaring “We’re better than that”.
Kiwi-American journalist Tracey Barnett launched the campaign, saying it appeals to an “ethos of inherent fairness” most New Zealanders have.
She says most New Zealanders are completely unaware of the bill, and this hinders the chance for public debate.
The campaign video includes a list of public figures – including actor Oscar Knightly, singer Dave Dobbyn and comedian Jeremy Elwood – condemning the bill as an inhumane and an unnecessary measure against a non-existent threat.
The video ends with Barnett saying: “We need to talk”.
“I felt if your average Kiwi understood how ill-thought out detention of asylum seekers would be for New Zealand, they would bat it down.”
She believes the political climate surrounding the bill has clouded the underlying issues.
“I think this has little to do with ‘being prepared’ or being a ‘deterrent’ and a lot to do with getting on the same political page as Australia.”
The bill proposes changes to the Immigration Act 2009, defining “mass arrival” as a group of 10 or more, and allowing for up to a six month detention period for asylum seekers during processing.
It also would allow for the suspension of specific asylum claims through regulation.
The bill states the purpose of the amendments is “to enhance New Zealand’s ability to manage effectively and efficiently a mass arrival of irregular and potentially illegal migrants, and to make New Zealand a less attractive destination for people-smugglers.”
A submission by the Human Rights Commission says that while the government has a duty to protect its border, “the bill achieves neither and proposes measures which breach New Zealand’s obligations under the Refugee Convention 1951 and international human rights instruments to which New Zealand is a party”.
In an open letter to ministers, former Immigration Minister and immigration consultant Aussie Malcolm has urged a reconsideration of the bill, saying the government was headed down a “dangerous path”.
The NZ Law Society called the bill “legally flawed” because it ignores obligations set out by international human rights and refugee law.
Dr Rodney Harrison QC says UN reports have outlined the pitfalls of detaining asylum seekers, suggesting it should be avoided at all costs.
“The main issue is the fact that it provides for mass detention with such a low threshold trigger,” he says.
A submission by Gary Poole, chief executive of the Refugee Council of New Zealand, cited a study in 2003 showing suicide rates in Australian detention centres 41 times higher than the national average for men and 28 times higher for women.
“New Zealand should learn from the recent serious mistakes made by the Australian government around the boat people issue and avoid repeating them. There is plenty to be learnt,” the submission said.
A total of 44 public submissions were received by Parliament, and all but one of which were against its implementation. Despite this, Immigration Minister Nathan Guy said the government was not willing to water it down.
The bill passed its first parliamentary reading in May by 63 votes to 57, and has gone before a select committee.
Last month, the Australian government passed legislation to reopen two detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, rekindling debate about the treatment of asylum seekers.
The legislation harked back to the “Pacific Solution” of the John Howard government which opened the detention centres.
Last year, the centres were initially closed after hunger strikes and riots brought the issue into public discourse.
However, while Australia received 6765 asylum seekers by boat this year, no refugee boats have ever reached New Zealand shores in modern history.
In 2002, the case of Ahmed Zaoui raised intense public debate about asylum seekers and their treatment in New Zealand.
Zaoui was an Algerian political refugee who was detained upon arrival under suspicion of terrorist activity.
He was held in prison from December 2002 until August 2003 when the Refugee Status Appeals Authority granted him refugee status.
“I think it raised awareness about fear being the first and worst motivator in how we react to people in need,” said Barnett.
Elements of xenophobia
Gary Poole said the Zaoui case was handled badly by politicians and media, and played into elements of xenophobia.
“In the end he was found to be a genuine refugee, is an outstanding NZ citizen, owns his own business, and coaches children in soccer,” he said.
Barnett said: “It’s never pointed out enough
“These same people who are driven, resourceful and motivated enough to flee death in their own countries and actually find a way to get themselves here by plane often provide the kind of social capital this country should welcome.
“They have to start over from nothing. I have huge respect for that climb.”
Mohamed Hassan is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalist on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.