Refugee expert warns NZ against immigration law change

29 Jun, 2012
Refugee expert warns NZ against immigration law change
Asylum seekers: locked out.

After two asylum-seeker boats capsized in Australian waters within a week an international refugee expert has called for the New Zealand government to reconsider proposed immigration law changes.

Speaking today at the International Asian & Ethnic Minority Health & Wellbeing Conference, Professor Derrick Silove, from the University of New South Wales’ Centre for Population Mental Health, said such tragedies can be avoided.

“Refugees have already suffered extreme trauma. They come to Australia and are then put into indefinite detention. 34% of refugee populations have post-traumatic stress-disorder – an epidemic by any standards. It’s essential that New Zealand learns from the mistakes Australia has made with refugee resettlement.”

Director of AUT University’s Migrant & Refugee Research Centre, Professor Max Abbott shares these views “one of the things we have to do is not overreact as the Australians have done where they're putting people in detention for indefinite periods offshore, not treating them as individuals and depriving them of basic human rights."

The New Zealand government are currently looking at amending the 2009 Immigration Act to deter asylum seekers. Professor Abbott says the government needs to reconsider the proposed law changes.

"The amendment to the 2009 Immigration Act to deter asylum seekers is an over-reaction that is probably in breach of international humanitarian laws and conventions.

“Copying aspects of the harsh Australian approach to asylum seekers will damage New Zealand’s positive reputation in refugee and humanitarian matters.  It is unlikely to act as a deterrent and could drag asylum and refugee issues into a highly charged political arena that will be socially divisive and destructive.”

"While there is a need for New Zealand to have secure borders and be able to deal with the unlikely arrival of a large group of asylum seekers on masse, proposals for mandatory detention for an initial six month period under a 'group warrant' are inappropriate,” says Professor Abbott.

Plans to treat people who arrive in a group larger than 10 differently from other refugees and asylum seekers - for years after their refugee status has been confirmed - is discriminatory.  According to Abbott, these measures would have an adverse impact on their health, adaptation and contribution to New Zealand society.

"This country is highly regarded internationally for its refugee policies which include taking up to 750 refugees per annum through the United Nations system and offering asylum to a much smaller number of people who reach our borders in other ways and meet refugee criteria. New Zealand is a long-time signatory of the United Nations Convention on Refugees and has an international obligation to fairly assess all people who arrive here seeking asylum.  It is important that they are considered on a case-by-case basis and do not languish for indeterminate periods in custody."

Professor Abbott says research in Australia and elsewhere has shown that indeterminate detention in camps leads to major mental and physical health problems.  Asylum seekers come seeking refuge, not further ill treatment, uncertainty and abuse of fundamental human rights, he says.

"We very much support the Refugee Council of New Zealand in its call for a multi-party accord on how a future boat arrival could best be managed, balancing humanitarian and border protection obligations.   We can learn from the blunders that have been made across the Tasman and continue to hold our heads high.  We can avoid refugee and broader issues of race and ethnicity becoming political and media fodder and fuelling prejudice and discrimination.  We, as New Zealanders, are bigger than this."