BY SARAH STEPHEN
Last September, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark announced that the Labour-Alliance coalition government she leads would be willing to take a small number of the 430 refugees aboard the MV Tampa, which was then stranded in seas off Christmas Island by the Australian government's refusal to let it dock.
On September 26, the first of 131 Afghans refugees arrived in NZ amid a great deal of international praise for the country's compassionate response to the refugees' plight.
By February, all but one of the 131 asylum seekers had been granted refugee status in NZ. NZ's comparatively swift processing and acceptance of the refugees was lauded. It compared starkly to the painfully (and deliberately) slow processing of refugees' claims in Australia. The majority of the 300 other Tampa refugees, who were taken to Nauru, are still waiting to be processed.
Unfortunately, Australian newspapers did not tell the full story. Clark made it appear that the government had gone out of its way to help the Tampa asylum seekers, but in reality their acceptance was not in addition to NZ's annual resettlement target of 750 refugees.
The Tampa asylum seekers were housed in the Mangere Refugee Reception Centre near Auckland for a period of almost five months. During that time, what began as an open migrant centre was transformed into a detention centre with barbed wire and security guards.
The NZ government used the Tampa refugees — the country's largest single intake of asylum seekers — as a pretext to introduce detention. Green Party immigration spokesperson Keith Locke spoke out against the transformation of the Mangere centre. He advocated outlawing detention of asylum seekers unless there was definite evidence that they had a criminal background.
Soon after their arrival, two teenage Afghan asylum seekers were held in Mount Eden Remand Prison for six days. According to the government, they were detained to allow further security checks after their original interviews at Auckland airport raised "concerns".
According to the October 4 New Zealand Herald, the lawyer representing the teenagers said that the misunderstanding had arisen because of the lack of competent Afghan interpreters.
Clark has refused to voice any criticism of the Australian government's harsh and punitive refugee policy. This is hardly surprising when her government is increasing the use of detention. According to Bill Smith, Amnesty International (NZ)'s refugee coordinator, Australian policy has had a significant influence on the direction of NZ government policy. The September 11 attacks have also used as a pretext for tightening NZ's immigration controls.
In mid-1999, there was a "sighting" of a boat-load of Chinese refugees headed for NZ, although it subsequently "disappeared" from radar screens. This was used by the National Party government as a pretext for introducing the Immigration Amendment Act.
Among other things, the legislation allowed for unauthorised asylum seekers (those without a visa or with false documents) to be detained indefinitely while their cases were assessed. Prior to this, it was only lawful to detain asylum seekers for 28 days.
Maire Leadbeater, an Auckland city councillor and campaigner for refugees' rights, told Green Left Weekly: "In October, just before the 1999 election, there was a very significant month-long hunger strike by 16 asylum seekers from India, Iran and Pakistan at Mount Eden jail... The strike ended after a High Court judgement that the detention was unjustifiable. It also coincided with the election of the Labour-Alliance government in November."
Leadbeater added that an ad-hoc group, Justice for Asylum Seekers, was born from the demonstrations in support of the hunger strikers.
NZ immigration officers have the discretion to deny any unauthorised asylum seeker a temporary visa. A refusal results in detention. The act also foreshadowed a tightening of deportation for visa over-stayers, to take effect on October 1, 2000. There was a selective amnesty for those who had been in the country without a proper visa for at least five years, were married to a NZ citizen or had New Zealand-born children. The amnesty ran until March 2001.
With the election of the Labour-Alliance government, detention of asylum seekers was initially reduced. However, this trend has started to reverse. In 2000, around 13% of asylum seekers were detained on arrival.
On September 19, the government announced two levels of detention for asylum seekers who could not prove their identity or were suspected of being security risks. Those refused a permit on these grounds could be detained at the Mangere refugee centre or in prison until their identity is proven or refugee status granted.
In May, a young man from Yemen, who had escaped from the Villawood detention centre in Australia, managed to reach NZ to claim refugee status. He was refused a work permit and denied government benefits because he would not disclose how he obtained a false passport.
An Algerian asylum seeker, who also escaped from Villawood, was imprisoned in Mount Eden prison before being returned to Australia on December 7. A Somali man, the third Villawood escapee to reach New Zealand, was also detained.
As of February 27, there were five asylum seekers detained in Auckland's central remand prison. The Human Rights Foundation and the Auckland Refugee Council have sought a ruling from the High Court that their detention is illegal. The claim will be heard in May.
The Green Party's Keith Locke noted in a March 11 press release: "Of the 63 people detained at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre since September 11, 21 have been granted refugee status so far, and only seven declined. The government should return to the pre-September 11 practice of letting asylum seekers go into open hostels or private homes. It worked before, it's humane and it is in line with international practice."
As a consequence of the increasing use of detention, the number of refugee claimants staying at the Glendene hostel, run by the Auckland Refugee Council, has been substantially reduced. The hostel has room for 23 people, but presently houses only 13.
The government has initiated a discussion about whether to lift NZ's refugee quota from 750 to 1000 if it is re-elected in November. Even though the number of asylum seekers who arrive in NZ each year without authorisation is tiny and the number of refugees accepted through the resettlement program is small, public opinion is just as polarised as it is in Australia.
A National Business Review-Compaq poll, released on March 1, found that 36% of people surveyed said the current quota of 750 refugees was too high; only 9% said it was too low. Forty-nine per cent said the level was about right. Most people (58%) thought that NZ should take refugees who were in the most immediate danger, regardless of where they came from. Overall, 28% thought NZ should give priority to refugees from countries with similar cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Young people, service and sales workers and the self-employed were most opposed to admitting more refugees. Rural people were also opposed to increasing the quota, with 45% saying it was already too high.
Winston Peters, leader of New Zealand First, a right-wing, anti-immigrant party, argues that more refugees will render New Zealanders "second-class citizens".
Former Labour minister Richard Prebble, who leads the right-wing ACT New Zealand, said on January 28: "There are millions of refugees around the world and instead of taking those who have most difficulty settling in New Zealand — e.g. those from desert cultures — we should look sympathetically at refugees who would have no difficulty integrating into New Zealand society. For example, white farmers being driven off their land in Zimbabwe are real refugees and they'd make good citizens but they'd never be selected by this politically correct government."
From Green Left Weekly, May 15, 2002.
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