‘Immediate and urgent reform’ needed after 86 asylum seekers detained in prison — Amnesty International

“Immediate and urgent reform" is needed, Amnesty International says, after releasing a report this morning showing 86 asylum seekers were arrested and detained in New Zealand prisons solely on immigration grounds.

Amnesty NZ said the report found New Zealand's policies from 2015-2020 "have put refugees and asylum seekers at risk, and in some cases constitute human rights violations".

It said the experiences of some asylum seekers who spent time in prisons "are a stark picture of the human rights failures and harms of this policy for the people who are subject to it". 

"Our investigations have documented a case where a reported survivor of torture, later recognised as a refugee, was allegedly raped whilst being double-bunked in prison."

The report stated the detention in a police cell or prison "ranged from several days to several years".

"Despite not being charged with a criminal offence in New Zealand, asylum seekers detained in a prison are subject to essentially the same regime as remand accused prisoners."

New Zealand law allows for the detention of some people seeking asylum in prisons — with a UN working group expressing concern of the practice in 2015.

Immigration New Zealand can imprison an asylum seeker "to hold them for future deportation pending the determination of their claim if they are considered at risk of absconding within New Zealand, pending satisfactory establishment of their identity, or on broad 'threat to security' grounds". 

There were 86 people detained in Corrections facilities between 2015 and November 2020 under the  Immigration Act  — 66 of those were in the Mt Eden Corrections Facility. 

It said Immigration New Zealand had imprisoned several people who were later recognised as refugees, who had previously experienced torture, mistreatment or sexual or gender-based violence.

"We also interviewed a case where a man reported being caught up in the notorious 'fight clubs' at Mt Eden Corrections Facility, resulting in him being forced to regularly fight other remand prisoners. Three men spoke of how their treatment led them to want to end their life.

"One man spent over three years of his life in limbo in prison as his claim for asylum was processed and his hand was broken in an altercation with a cellmate."

The 12 asylum seekers who were interviewed for the report said they were placed in double-bunked cells with remand prisoners at some point during their time in prison — all also said it was standard practice to be strip searched.

Many reportedly faced language barriers and three of the group were detained in prison despite offers to host them by a community group or family member.

Data used in the report from Immigration New Zealand showed that between 2014 to 2019 there were 17 people who spent between 101-200 days in a correctional facility, eight who spent between 201-300, seven who spent between 301-500 and seven who spent more than 501 days. 

"All asylum seekers spoke of the impact of their imprisonment on their wellbeing, especially their mental health, both whilst they were in prison and how it has impacted them following their release," the report stated. 

The report recommended ending the use of police stations and prisons to detain asylum seekers or irregular migrants and ensuring there were community alternatives available, reform to the law to be consistent with international human rights standards and reviewing "cross-agency failures". 

When contacted about the report from an asylum seeker of alleged rape, a police spokesperson said they received a report in late April 2018 about an alleged sexual assault by a man who was in custody.

"A number of inquiries were made into the report at the time. These inquiries included a specialist interview being conducted, with the assistance of a translator, as well as forensic inquiries being carried out. Ultimately, police were unable to meet the evidential threshold to lay charges relating to the complaint of unlawful sexual connection.

"However, following the investigation a 24-year-old man was given a warning in relation to common assault."

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi said the Government would look into the issues raised in Amnesty’s report and seek advice.  

"The Government takes its responsibilities around asylum seekers seriously and complies with international convention regarding the right for people to seek asylum and their treatment.

"Holding asylum seekers in detention is relatively rare. There are no plans, at this time, to change processes around the handling of asylum seeker cases in New Zealand," he said. 

"Arrangements are being made for the Minister of Immigration to meet Amnesty to discuss its report."

Immigration New Zealand (INZ) said it could not comment on details of individual asylum or refugee claims.

INZ's general manager of verification and compliance Geoff Scott did say that allegations of assault "were referred to the Department of Corrections at the time as they are responsible for the welfare of individuals who are detained in correction facilities".

"In this instance, INZ advised the individual that they should inform their lawyer about the assault and any investigations that were underway. Because of active police and Corrections investigations, INZ was unable to inform the individual’s lawyer."

INZ was unable to identify other cases related to the claims around detained asylum seekers later recognised as refugees, who were past survivors of torture and the three asylum seekers who said they were detained in prison despite a community group or family member offering to host them.

He said the vast majority of asylum seekers live in the community while claims are decided.

"An individual may be detained for various reasons, including if they arrive in New Zealand without valid identity documents, if they are liable for deportation based on their unlawful immigration status in New Zealand.  Individuals are generally released into the community and the judicial process for detaining individuals is only followed where absolutely necessary."

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