New Zealand’s longest imprisoned asylum seeker is fighting for compensation for what he says is a breach of his human rights.
1 NEWS can reveal the man spent three years and one month in prison while waiting for his claim to be processed, which turned out to be valid.
"It was the worst time of my life, a lot of anxiety, because you don't know about your future," the man said.
He doesn’t want to identify himself because he fears for his family’s safety in his home country.
The man fled to New Zealand in 2006 from South America after a journalist he’d helped expose a child sex trafficking ring was murdered. The gang orchestrating the ring had political links and threatened the man also.
"They tried to kill me two times. I believe a lot in God and I escape," he said.
In New Zealand, he said he was advised not to claim asylum here.
“They all advise me the same thing. If I get accepted, that's awesome, but if I get declined I will not have any chance to have any visa in New Zealand or any other country.”
For his first five years in New Zealand he was on temporary visas. But in 2011 a new one was declined and he became an overstayer. In 2017, he was arrested and sent to Waikeria Prison to be processed for deportation. That’s when he claimed asylum.
He was never charged and was held in the remand wing of the prison. "I'm not a criminal” he says. “I've been forced to fight to protect myself, they lost my properties. I was feel[ing] like an animal."
Applications for asylum were twice rejected and Immigration New Zealand deemed him at risk of absconding. In a statement, it said the man’s detention was drawn out because he had made multiple appeals. It said the system is meant for people claiming asylum on arrival, or while they’re legally here.
In prison he became suicidal and broke his fingers in fight with a cell mate. "I felt my life had been threatened all the time.”
He said his treatment is a violation of his human rights. “My rights to prove my case like from prison is impossible.”
The rights group Amnesty International became aware of the man’s case. "When I first saw it, I thought it was a mistake, that he had been in that long," said Annaliese Johnston, advocacy and policy manager.
The group put pressure on Immigration NZ and in March of this year the man was released.
"Asylum seekers should not be put in criminal prisons. It should not be happening. It's inappropriate. Seeking asylum is a human right," she said.
Out of jail, the man found it much easier to gather evidence for his claim, and in September, on his third appeal, he was granted protected person status by the Immigration and Protection Tribunal.
His lawyer Jane Walker said it’s “appalling” he was imprisoned for so long. “I think it's ridiculous. There's an option there for people who make a refugee claim, when they're illegal to go and stay in the asylum seeker trust homes.”
She said in her dealings with Immigration she felt there was “an underlying belief he was trying to rort the system.”
“He spent as much time in prison as people in New Zealand are sentenced for very serious violent offending and he'd done nothing other than become illegal."
Before Covid closed the border, about 500 people are year were claiming asylum here. Figures from Immigration New Zealand show on average about 24 asylum seekers a year are locked up.
The man is now fighting for compensation and wider change.
“The biggest compensation will be Immigration New Zealand stops putting those people in prison."