Human Rights Commission opposes refugee law changes

By Kate Shuttleworth

The Human Rights Commission are opposing a proposed new law making it mandatory to detain asylum seekers as a way to deter "mass arrivals" and people-smugglers, saying it's discriminatory.

New Zealand's race relations commissioner Joris de Bres told MPs that detaining asylum seekers under the Immigration Amendment Bill would unfairly prosecute them and breach their human rights.

The new law defined a group of more than 10 asylum seekers as a "mass arrival" and allowed a group of this size to be incarcerated for up to six months.

Joris de Bres told a select committee at Parliament today changes to the Immigration Act will penalise asylum seekers for irregular entry into a country, breaching New Zealand's obligations under the Refugee Convention and the New Zealand Bill of Rights.

"I find it hard to contemplate a situation in which we would accept the mandatory detention of whole groups of people in an army camp or elsewhere without any consideration of their individual circumstances."

He said the bill was centred on an idea that those arriving as part of a mass arrival are illegal. "It is important to address the mistaken impression the bill will address asylum seekers who were queue jumping: to the potential detriment of the 750 refugees accepted via the UN High Commission for Refugees each year," he said.

"Some countries do not have UN offices or refugee camps where people in danger can legitimately present an application," he said.

"Although their method of arrival on New Zealand's shores may be irregular they are not illegal. Under New Zealand and International Law a person is entitled to make an application for asylum in another country when they allege they are escaping persecution," he said.

"The Bill risks unravelling the positive gains that have been made in New Zealand and will undoubtedly result in negative comment from the United Nations."

"People-smuggling was already dealt with under the Crimes Act."

Caritas Aotearoa, a Catholic organisation working for peace and justice also opposed the bill.

CEO Julianne Hickey said she believed the asylum seekers and refugees deserved more dignity than the bill proposed.

She spoke first-hand to the select committee about coming to New Zealand after prosecution in Zimbabwe.

National MP Nathan Guy defended the Immigration Amendment Bill saying it was a firm but fair package.

"All the advice I've received is that the Bill is consistent with our international obligations, and with the New Zealand Bill of Rights."

"We are committed to playing our role as a good international citizen and taking in 750 genuine UN-mandated refugees per year."

"We want to prevent people smuggling ventures by making New Zealand a less desirable target. We know that we've been a target of such operations in recent years. In 2010 a steel-hulled boat with 500 people reached Canada, so if they can make it that far they can certainly make it to New Zealand. The risk is real," he said.

Asylum seekers are people who arrive at the border, while refugees are those with a recognised status.

Immigration Amendment Bill:

- Defines more than 10 asylum seekers as a "mass arrival".

- Allows mandatory detention for mass arrivals for up to six months.

- Limits the group of people refugees can apply for in a family reunification application to "immediate family".

- Gives greater powers to suspend processing of refugees.

- Makes it more difficult for refugees to have their asylum claims reviewed.


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