Report Outlines Clear Human Rights Violations Of Asylum Seekers By Govt
Amnesty International has for the first time carried out investigative field research on Aotearoa New Zealand soil. It follows a number of reports of the ill-treatment of people in prison, including people who’ve sought asylum here. The report clearly establishes that the Government has repeatedly violated the human rights of people seeking asylum.
In 2014 the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention visited Aotearoa New Zealand and raised concerns about the use of criminal justice facilities to detain people seeking asylum. In their report presented to the Human Rights Council in 2015, they recommended the abolishment of this practice.
The Amnesty International report released today at Mt Eden Corrections Facility, "‘Take me to a Safe Place’: The imprisonment of asylum seekers in Aotearoa New Zealand" reveals that from 2015 to 2020, 86 people who claimed asylum in Aotearoa New Zealand were sent to prison. The report was released to a crowd outside the prison of people who've previously claimed asylum, Amnesty Advocates, and other organisations who do tireless work in the assistance of people seeking refuge here; The Asylum Seekers Support Trust and Refugees As Survivors New Zealand.
Of the 12 interviewed in the report there is one woman, one man who was forced into fight clubs, one man who had his hand broken in an altercation with another inmate, and one man who was allegedly raped (currently under investigation). There are numerous other grievances, detailed in the report. It includes case studies of people from across the world, including China, South America, the Middle East, South Asia and Africa.
The report shows asylum seekers facing prison are subject to a complex and overwhelming maze of immigration and criminal justice processes. It begins with interviews by immigration officials, three to four nights in police custody, appearing in the District Court and ultimately prison. Amnesty International found that at every stage, there were failures to ensure basic rights to a fair process.
Amnesty International Executive Director Meg de Ronde says people seeking a place to heal from violence and persecution shouldn’t be detained behind bars.
"All those seeking asylum we spoke to talked about the impact on their well-being from their prison experience, and the shock that Aotearoa New Zealand would detain them when they had come here to seek safety and a better life. We, as investigators, were shocked and appalled to discover the extent of the abuse and human rights violations."
"Several spoke of suicidal ideation. Others spoke of physical abuse. And we have to remember, these are people who may have fled horrific circumstances, including violence and persecution in their home country. What they sought here was solace. What they were put into is a system that pushed them around and harmed them more."
De Ronde says the shared lines of responsibility between Immigration and Corrections appears to be being used as an excuse to shirk responsibility for the abuse occurring, and it means people are falling through the cracks. Once someone seeking asylum is imprisoned under an Immigration court order, they are essentially under the same regime as remand prisoners.
"While Immigration New Zealand wants to protect people’s privacy, for good reasons, it can mean little information is passed between Immigration and the Department of Corrections. In practice, this means prison officers may not know a person being detained is an asylum seeker and that they have specific needs. Immigration New Zealand is the agency with the authority to seek the imprisonment of an asylum seeker, yet when questioned about the human rights of those in prison, has said that Corrections "sets the rules". This deflection of responsibility from both means in some cases, there has been a failure to prevent further ill treatment." This makes it difficult to hold Government to account and establish a clear line of responsibility.
She says the New Zealand prison system should never be used for someone seeking asylum.
"The language barriers caused such isolation that I can only compare it to a dream where you’re screaming and no one is listening. People we interviewed described a lack of adequate language interpretation support on a day-to-day basis that seriously affected their ability to understand why they were in prison, how to ask for help or for clothing, and what their rights were. Some reported begging, pleading Immigration New Zealand for release, for a safe place. Frustratingly, in some instances an alternative space for better, more appropriate care had been found but Immigration New Zealand continued their detention behind bars anyway."
De Ronde adds that both lawyers and people seeking asylum described how the isolation and incarceration in a criminal justice facility can impede their ability to gather evidence for their asylum claim.
"The report makes very evident that prison makes it difficult for some to meaningfully advance their asylum claim. The stress of the prison environment combined with lack of access to the internet and other challenges in our criminal justice facilities can make it extremely difficult to gather the required supporting evidence for a claim. We are needlessly locking people up because of flaws in our immigration system and this is affecting their ability to claim asylum - that’s not good enough. Advocates, lawyers and community organisations have been raising this issue for years, and this report makes clear the extent of the problem. The Government can no longer ignore this issue. Amnesty International is calling for immediate and urgent reform to the Immigration Act 2009 to end these practices."
At the border, people were often not sure why they were being strip-searched. They reported border officials had limited knowledge of the right to seek asylum.
Most interviewed reported not having access to a lawyer or interpreter for their nights at the police station, not knowing why they were detained or who to ask for help. Some said they were crying, not knowing why they had been handcuffed and taken to prison. This would amount to a breach of Aotearoa New Zealand’s obligations to ensure due process rights in arrest and detention proceedings.
Asylum seekers also described feeling terrified, exhausted, overwhelmed, and not knowing that they had a right to challenge their detention. As a refugee lawyer noted, "Those police stations are hellholes to send a refugee claimant.
Whilst interpreters and duty lawyers are available at the District Court for their detention hearings, there was no meaningful access to justice. Duty lawyers are criminal lawyers and generally don’t have immigration or refugee law expertise.
On arrival to prison, asylum seekers are treated as remand prisoners. They can spend months, and at times even years, in prison without ever being charged with a criminal offence.
Our investigations documented a case where a reported survivor of torture, later recognised as a refugee, was allegedly raped whilst being double bunked in prison. 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. All spoke of the negative impacts on their well-being from their prison experience, and the shock that Aotearoa New Zealand would detain them when they had come here to seek safety and a better life. One man spent over three years of his life in limbo in prison as his protection claim for asylum was processed and his hand was broken in an altercation with a cellmate. In some cases, the abuses experienced would amount to failures to prevent ill-treatment under the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Some seeking asylum reported intimidation tactics from others in prison.
All those interviewed reported being double-bunked at some point in time
Language barriers were significant for asylum seekers with no or limited English in prison. Limited access to interpreters on a day-to-day basis meant that some asylum seekers would often have no idea what was going on, how to complain or who to ask for help. Prison authorities would at times resort to finding a prison officer or other prisoner who spoke the language or something similar. This can make it hard to access help or support when needed.
Clothing and bedding provided was reportedly not always adequate, leaving some feeling cold and unhygienic. One lawyer detailed how shocked they were to find their client had to wear dirty clothes from another inmate. Another lawyer left their jacket with their client because they were shaking from the cold.
Several Muslim asylum seekers spoke of their distress at not being able to practise their Muslim religion properly, particularly in police cells or at mealtimes with inconsistent access to halal food, or being given pork to eat which is forbidden in Islam. The Corrections Act 2004 falls short, stating that various religious, spiritual and cultural needs is only provided ‘as practical in the circumstances.’ This opens the door to inconsistent practice and does not sufficiently give effect to the obligation of non-discrimination by taking account of the individual needs of prisoners, or sufficiently uphold their right to manifest their religion or beliefs.
One man, Adam (not his real name), was reportedly accidentally placed in a restraint jacket due to language barriers. (Adam was allegedly tortured in his home country). This could constitute a failure to prevent ill-treatment under Article 16 of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Several asylum seekers interviewed spoke of the deep indignity and distress they felt in being strip searched, and the cumulative impacts of it happening repeatedly when they were transferred to and from court. This could also result in degrading treatment in breach of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.