Detaining refugees would stain New Zealand’s international reputation

Every minute of the day eight people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror. The number of refugees, estimated at 10.5 million, in this time of relative peace, continues to equal more than the population of New Zealand.

Today, 20 June is World Refugee Day, when we should take a moment to reflect on what it is to leave your life behind, the place you live, your family and your friends, for years, decades and sometimes forever.

In general New Zealand fulfils its obligations to the UN Refugee Convention 1951 well, balancing the need to protect our borders with the responsibiity to offer refugees haven. Immigration Minister Nathan Guy last week reaffirmed New Zealand’s commitment to support new refugees and help them adapt to life in New Zealand. He confirmed that New Zealand would continue to accept an intake of 750 refugees a year under humanitarian grounds.

In February the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres visited New Zealand. In Hamilton he watched a group of refugees welcomed to New Zealand with a traditional powhiri. He was visibly moved and said, “This is one of the most genuine and moving reception ceremonies I have seen for refugees anywhere in the world.” Mr Guterres congratulated New Zealand on its refugee resettlement strategy.

All the more reason then to note the real concerns about proposed legislation that stands to undo much of this good work. The Immigration Amendment Bill, introduced in April, and currently before a Select Committee enacts policy to respond to the possibility that a mass arrival of refugees would overwhelm the refugee and protection determination process and the courts.

The proposed solution includes mandatory detention of mass arrivals under a group warrant for a period of up to six months and would limit the rights to judicial review for those detained. If any of those people detained were subsequently granted refugee status, the bill would limit the extent of family re-unification.

Automatic detention of asylum seekers as part of a policy to deter future asylum seekers is contrary to the principles of international protection.  The proposed amendments challenge the core international human rights principles that New Zealand had a key role in developing at the United Nations after the Second World War.

Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”

The bill has been prompted as a solution to respond to people arriving unlawfully in New Zealand by boat. But are there actual instances of boatloads of people seeking sanctuary in New Zealand? It has never happened.

If people arrive seeking refugee status, then New Zealand is obliged to consider their claim. International law is clear, no matter what their means of arrival seeking asylum is not illegal, but a basic human right.

Under Article 31 of the UN Convention on Refugees  penalising asylum seekers for irregular entry runs counter to New Zealand’s obligations.

Under the current Immigration Act 2009, a group application can already be processed. The present law has provisions for reporting and residence requirement agreements. Instead of detention, in a camp or prison, New Zealand could call upon the strengths and goodwill of its communities to temporarily house potential refugees. Places as disparate as Hong Kong and Belgium have done this and report reduced costs and better, fairer outcomes.

What can be concluded is that the proposed bill runs counter to New Zealand’s obligations under the Refugee Convention. It erodes the careful balance achieved by the immigration Act 2009. If the provisions were ever to be carried out,  those detained would need to be housed in a secure facility with staff to operate it.

Weigh this against the overwhelming evidence that shows placing asylum seekers in the community is less costly and fosters a constructive engagement with asylum and immigration processes, which in turn improves the numbers of those who voluntarily return eventually to the countries they have fled.

On World Refugee Day we need to reflect on how we treat those who have fled war, persecuton and terror. We need to make sure New Zealand treats everyone, and not least, the vulnerable, with fairness, respect and dignity.

 + Joris de Bres is the Race Relations Commissioner, Human Rights Commission

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