The Government has commissioned an independent review to see if it can "tidy up" its practice of detaining asylum seekers in prison, in what refugee lawyers say is the first move in 20 years to address the issue.
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.
"Even thought we're talking about a small number [of detained asylum seekers], it's important New Zealand lives up to our international human rights obligations," Associate Immigration Minister Phil Twyford told Newstalk ZB.
He admitted that 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. We want to do the right thing by asylum seekers."
Immigration and refugee lawyer Deborah Manning said the review is a long time coming.
"It shows that the community has been listened to and taken seriously and it's the first time in over 20 years that we've seen any movement on this issue.
"So it really is welcome news."
The report, led by Victoria Casey, QC, will investigate whether New Zealand should be detaining asylum seekers or not, 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 last 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 admits this.
"The guidance we get from the United Nations Commission of Human Rights ... is that Corrections facilities should not be used for this purpose," Twyford said.
"At the moment in New Zealand we don't have dedicated immigration detention facilities, it's something we going to have to work through."
Manning hopes the review will provide "real alternatives" to detention.
"For so long this is an issue that has bounced between various Government departments and I hope it will be a way to end that ... and to find a way forward for genuine alternatives to detention for refugee claimants."
The confronting Amnesty report and Herald investigation in May revealed the atrocities people seeking asylum in New Zealand experienced during their time in prison.
Allegations of rape, and 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, who were detained at the time of the Herald's investigation in May, described being bullied by their cellmates, being unable to contact family members and "feeling low expectations of success" due to their treatment by Immigration New Zealand.
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 said he's very excited about the independent review.
"It means so much for our clients," he told the Herald.
"The guy that was locked up for 18 months while his wife had a baby, people like that.
"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."
Maurice said he was disappointed the Government will continue to use prison for asylum seekers while the report is being carried.
"We want them to stop using it now. They know it's not right."
Maurice hopes the Government won't "cherry-pick the cases to investigate to "make them look better".
Amnesty International executive director Meg de Ronde said having ministers willing to recognise the issue gives her hope.
"There are many people living in the community in New Zealand who weren't in the report ... who will have been held at Mt Eden or one of our other criminal facilities.
"This is for them. They're going to start to see movement and review of this practice."
But she said the review does not mean the problem has been solved.
"There is work to do to make sure criminal facilities are not seen as viable by this Government."
Amnesty met with ministers in June and has been working with them about what the scope of the review could include, de Ronde said.
"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 the end of the year.
Victoria Casey, QC
Queen's Counsel Victoria Casey authored an independent review in 2019 which painted a "negative picture" of the decision-making process for asylum seekers.
The review focused on the processes and procedures of the Refugee Status Branch
(RSB) of New Zealand Immigration, a part of MBIE, in dealing with claims for
recognition for refugee status.
"The tension between [Refugee Protection Officers] RPOs and at least some of the lawyers engaged in this field has reached a level that is clearly compromising the proper operation of the system," it found.
Recommendations included attempting to increase transparency and remove "what appear to be unnecessary points of tension and conflict".