Eli Orzessek is Travel's Digital Content Producer.

200 Kiwis detained on travels

Many get into trouble overseas through ‘cultural insensitivity’.
Philip Blackwood was jailed in Burma for insulting Buddhism after posting an online advertisement showing Buddha wearing headphones. Photo / AP
Philip Blackwood was jailed in Burma for insulting Buddhism after posting an online advertisement showing Buddha wearing headphones. Photo / AP

More than 200 New Zealanders were arrested and detained while travelling last year, and consular staff say drugs, petty crime and cultural insensitivity are often behind these overseas arrests.

Statistics obtained from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade showed 201 Kiwi travellers contacted the Government for assistance after breaking the law overseas.

The most common overseas location for New Zealanders to require help from Mfat was Australia, where at least 59 Kiwis were detained last year, followed by the US, which had 31 cases. China, Thailand and Japan were in equal third place, with 14 Kiwis detained in each country.

There were also multiple detention cases in the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Canada and the Philippines.

The statistics do not show the complete number of New Zealanders arrested overseas, just the cases in which individuals contacted Mfat for help.

In September last year, a father and son were arrested on arrival in Thailand after they failed to pay a bill at a restaurant on their last visit.

In Burma, bar manager Philip Blackwood was arrested and sentenced to 2 years in prison for insulting Buddhism, after he depicted Buddha wearing headphones in an online advertisement.

And last month, a New Zealander was among a group of elderly Westerners arrested for playing bridge in the Thai seaside resort of Pattaya. Police interrupted the card game, believing it to be an illegal gambling operation.

Mfat's Consular Division head, Lyndal Walker, said the most common cities for Kiwis to be detained were Bangkok, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Ankara.

These cases mainly related to drugs, petty crime such as theft, or cultural insensitivity - "what the average Kiwi would term as harmless fun", she said.

Most of the cases Mfat dealt with involved Kiwi tourists travelling on short-term holidays, with offenders from a wide range of ages and backgrounds.

"[Kiwi tourists must] obey local laws and respect different cultural norms," Ms Walker said. "What you think is harmless fun could result in a harsh penalty. Being a Kiwi doesn't mean that you get any special treatment when you're travelling overseas."

Many countries have unusual laws that often catch out unsuspecting tourists. In Barcelona and Dubai, it is illegal to wear swimming togs when you're not close to a body of water.

Even connecting to an unsecured wi-fi hotspot is considered theft in the UK and Canada and hacking in Singapore.

And if you're travelling in the United Arab Emirates during Ramadan, you'll need to observe the holiday, which forbids eating during the day.

Travellers found eating, drinking or smoking in public will be issued a warning and if caught again, could find themselves in jail.

The Government is unable to intervene in the justice system of other countries, despite what travellers might think.

Mfat was able to "help people help themselves" by offering advice on the local judicial system, contacting family if needed and visiting New Zealanders in prison.

Ms Walker's key advice was for tourists to take personal responsibility when travelling overseas.

"It's really important, before you travel overseas, to check out the Safe Travel website and look at our current travel advice. Register your details online, so if you find yourself caught up in something like Tropical Cyclone Winston, we're able to get hold of you quickly to confirm your wellbeing."

How Mfat can help

• A New Zealand consular officer can help find an English-speaking lawyer, inform next-of-kin and arrange the transfer of funds if bail or other payments are required.

• Depending on the location of the court, a consular officer can also attend a final court hearing as an observer.

• If imprisoned, consular officers can help family of a prisoner get in touch, seek approval for prison visits, notify prison authorities of any medical or dental problems you might have.

• They can also make prison visits, particularly in countries where prison conditions dramatically differ to New Zealand.

• However, they are unable to intervene in the judicial process of another country or get a detainee transferred to a prison in New Zealand.

Learn more about The Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade

- NZ Herald

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