OPINION: Every minute of the day, eight people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror. The number of refugees, estimated at 10.5 million, in this time of relative peace, continues to equal more than the population of New Zealand.
Today, June 20, is World Refugee Day, when we should take a moment to reflect on what it is to leave your life behind, the place you live, your family and your friends, for years, decades and sometimes forever.
In general, New Zealand fulfils its obligations to the United Nations Refugee Convention 1951 well, balancing the need to protect our borders with the responsibility to offer refugees haven.
Last week Immigration Minister Nathan Guy reaffirmed New Zealand's commitment to support new refugees and help them adapt to life in New Zealand. He confirmed that New Zealand would continue to accept an intake of 750 refugees a year under humanitarian grounds.
In February, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres visited New Zealand. In Hamilton he watched a group of refugees welcomed to New Zealand with a traditional powhiri. He was visibly moved and said: "This is one of the most genuine and moving reception ceremonies I have seen for refugees anywhere in the world."
Mr Guterres congratulated New Zealand on its refugee resettlement strategy.
All the more reason then to note the real concerns about proposed legislation that stands to undo much of this good work.
The Immigration Amendment Bill, introduced in April and before a select committee, enacts policy to respond to the possibility that a mass arrival of refugees would overwhelm the refugee and protection determination process and the courts.
The proposed solution includes mandatory detention of mass arrivals under a group warrant for a period of up to six months and would limit the rights to judicial review for those detained.
If any of those detained were subsequently granted refugee status, the bill would limit the extent of family reunification.
Automatic detention as part of a policy to deter future asylum-seekers is contrary to the principles of international protection.
The proposed amendments challenge the core international human rights principles that New Zealand had a key role in developing at the United Nations after World War II.
Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution".
The bill has been prompted as a solution to respond to people arriving unlawfully in New Zealand by boat. But are there actual instances of boatloads of people seeking sanctuary in New Zealand? It has never happened.
If people arrive seeking refugee status, then New Zealand is obliged to consider their claim. International law is clear, no matter what their means of arrival, seeking asylum is not illegal, but a basic human right.
Under Article 31 of the UN Convention on Refugees, penalising asylum-seekers for irregular entry runs counter to New Zealand's obligations.
Under the current Immigration Act 2009, a group application can already be processed. The present law has provisions for reporting and residence requirement agreements. Instead of detention, in a camp or prison, New Zealand could call upon the strengths and goodwill of its communities to temporarily house potential refugees.
Places as disparate as Hong Kong and Belgium have done this and report reduced costs and better, fairer outcomes.
The proposed bill runs counter to New Zealand's obligations under the Refugee Convention. It erodes the careful balance achieved by the Immigration Act 2009. If the provisions were ever to be carried out, those detained would need to be housed in a secure facility with staff to operate it.
Weigh this against the overwhelming evidence that shows placing asylum-seekers in the community is less costly and fosters a constructive engagement with asylum and immigration processes, which in turn improves the numbers of those who eventually voluntarily return to the countries they have fled.
On World Refugee Day, we need to reflect on how we treat those who have fled war, persecution and terror. We need to make sure New Zealand treats everyone, and not least, the vulnerable, with fairness, respect and dignity.
Joris de Bres is the Race Relations Commissioner, Human Rights Commission.
- The Dominion Post
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