Exclusive: Syrian Kiwis forced into giving passwords, underwear searched by NZ Customs

Syrian-born Kiwis say they are being subjected to intrusive and unnecessary searches as they return home from overseas.

1 News has talked to a number of individuals who have been detained at Auckland airport, often for hours at a time. They've been forced to hand over their phones and laptops - and ordered to surrender passwords to social media accounts.

One man says he has been searched six times since 2015, with customs demanding passwords to his social media accounts. Source: 1 NEWS

Now community leaders say they fear Syrians are being profiled and they are demanding an explanation from Customs officials.

SEARCHED SIX TIMES SINCE 2015

Samer Soud has been stopped and detained six times since 2015 as he returned home from visiting his 28-year-old son Martin in Sydney.

On three of those occasions he's been forced to hand over his devices, and he says his wife Evelyn was left embarrassed and furious after border guards trawled through her underwear.

"I have been searched thoroughly all through my wardrobe and my phone, my laptop and I have been asked to explain about my journey to Sydney.

"Why did I go to Sydney? What did I do in Sydney?... The first three times, probably I've been stopped each time for three hours, which is really annoying. I was with my wife and my younger son."

The family were travelling back and forth to Australia after his son became engaged - and then for the wedding.

Customs staff also asked for details about his son.

"I have to answer every question, you know - what does he do, where he lives, his work address, his phone numbers ... Does he live alone?"

Mr Soud says it's an "awful feeling" when officers go through their belongings. "I don't mind them looking at anything because I've got nothing to hide...[but] it's frustrating me and it's a degrading really, you become humiliated and they're looking through your private stuff, you know - especially you have some memories, photos you don't want anyone else to see, you know. And my wife's wardrobe, you know, all of private stuff there and they go through everything in detail."

He says he's given "no choice" but to hand over passwords to What's App, Facebook and his mobile phone. "If you say no they tell you - in the beginning - don't make it hard on yourself."

FIVE-HOUR INTERROGATION AFTER HOLIDAY IN BALI

Ashraf Almoukdad has lived in New Zealand for three decades. He was held for almost five hours after returning from a holiday in Bali in September. He says he wasn't allowed to phone his children who were waiting outside to collect him.

"[They] explained to me if I don't cooperate, I will be staying here longer and longer and longer... [I was] so tired, so angry, and so alone. You are not allowed to drink, you are not allowed to use your phone, you are not allowed to tell your kids who are waiting outside."

He says an official asked him where he'd been, which hotel he'd stayed at and to point out individuals in each photo on his phone. "It was totally intrusive and...I felt angry... If we are serious terrorists would ever leave photos with our ISIS pals on our phone? It's silly."

'SUDDENLY WE ARE NOT KIWI ENOUGH'

Both men say they are frustrated officials won't give them an explanation.

"It would be nice if they tell us why I have been stopped, and I actually ask them many times but every time I had the answer: 'We don't know. We don't know'," Mr Soud said.

Mr Almoukdad said: "There must be profiling...we are New Zealanders like every other full New Zealanders. We have never created a reason for anybody to get suspicious of us.

"This way of treatment at the airport - suddenly we are not Kiwi enough, we are not trusted. Somebody decided we are potential bad people. What did we do to justify that treatment?"

CUSTOMS: NUMBER OF SEARCHES IS VERY LOW

In a statement, a spokesman for Customs said: "We use intelligence information and risk-based profiling to identify passengers that may need further questioning. This could be for a range of reasons, such as establishing their visit is genuine, or risk assessing for offending such as smuggling drugs, weapons, child exploitation images, identity fraud, or to determine if they may pose a threat to New Zealand's national security.

"Extensive screening is carried out using data and technology to identify those who might pose a risk before interacting with passengers - the number of passengers searched is very low.

Fewer than 10,000 out of 5.4 million arriving passengers (less than 0.2 %) have their bags examined, and not all of these people have their electronic devices examined.

"A range of indicators are considered when deciding to interact with passengers -- from nationality (to determine if a passenger has originated travel in, or passed through, a region of risk), through to body language and general demeanour. Customs does not profile passengers based on religion or belief."

It says the Customs and Excise Act 1996 allows it to search passengers' goods. And that includes devices.

"The numbers of devices examined is very low. Customs officers may ask to search an e-device for a number of reasons e.g. to verify travel pans or statements, check for objectionable material (e.g. child sexual abuse or terrorism-related), or identify any evidence of offending (e.g. drugs or fraud)."

But Green MP Kennedy Graham says the number of searches have increased since foreign fighters anti-terror laws were passed in 2014.

"These are New Zealand citizens. They are coming back from overseas as New Zealand citizens and they are being discriminated against because of their ethnic or religious background."



Watch: Take a tour inside Kate Sheppard’s former house where suffragists worked to get women the right to vote

Suffragist Kate Sheppard's old house in Christchurch goes up for auction next month - so Seven Sharp host Hilary Barry took a tour.

Ms Sheppard was instrumental in gaining New Zealand women the right to vote in 1893. She carried out important work for the suffrage movement in the house during the late 19th Century.

Today saw celebrations around the country marking 125 years since women gained the right to vote in New Zealand.

Jacinda Ardern has indicated the Government is interested in buying the house for the nation. It's expected to fetch in excess of $3 million when it goes under the hammer on October 17.

Hilary Barry met with the home's current owner Julia Burbury who showed her around the dwelling set on one acre of gardens.

The house has a category one heritage listing.

The piece of New Zealand history in Christchurch, worth more than $3 million, is up for auction. Source: Seven Sharp


Mum distraught as son turned away from Hutt Valley High School because he didn't have permanent address

Being homeless has become an obstacle for one mother wanting to give her child an education.

Helen Taitapanui and her son were turned away from Hutt Valley High School last week because they don't have a permanent residential address.

Ms Taitapanui, is currently battling cancer and lives in a motel with her teenage son while they wait for a permanent home.

"We've got to be glad that we've got that when we know that a lot of our families are out there living in cars," Ms Taitapanui told 1 NEWS.

However, this was a problem when she tried to enrol her son at a local school.

"The response was it's against their policy to register children living out of a motel. you had to have a residential address," Ms Taitapanui said.

She complained to the Ministry of Education and shortly after Hutt Valley High School reversed its decision.

Ms Taitapanui says her son's excited about going back to school.

"I know once he steps back into the realm of education he'll be well and truly away."

She hopes by speaking out, another unnecessary obstacle will be removed for the homeless.

Being homeless threw up an unexpected obstacle for a mum wanting to educate her child. Source: 1 NEWS

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More chlorination likely with water services set to be centralised

The Government is set to strip councils of their power over water following Havelock North's 2016 gastro crisis which was a wake up call for the country.  

Speaking to Water New Zealand's conference today, the Local Government Minister, Nanaia Mahuta, gave her strongest hint yet of change. 

Havelock North's gastro outbreak prompted a review of drinking water, wastewater and stormwater nationwide.

The estimated cost of ensuring drinking water is safe is $500 million, and to fix water infrastructure, at least $2 billion. 

"The Government doesn't have a bottomless pit of money to throw at this," Ms Mahuta said.

But water won't be privatised. Instead, services are likely to be moved into a national water regulator and responsibility for water service stripped from the 67 councils and handed to a small number of entities.

Water NZ chief executive John Pfahlert said that would mean "you get better quality water and it doesn't cost as much to provide". 

But change for the water industry is unlikely to be without controversy.

Any change is likely to see authority over water taken away from local councils, and Local Government New Zealand will not be happy about that.

"We would have issues if it was compulsory because we believe bigger is not always better. New Zealand is incredibly diverse from the Far North to the Deep South," said Stuart Crosbie of Local Government NZ. 

Twenty per cent of drinking water is unsafe - so a national agency is likely to mean more chlorination.

"It's there for a good public health reason. So it'll take time for the communities like Christchurch and Geraldine and other parts of New Zealand which have traditionally not had treated water, to get their head around that," Mr Pfahlert said.

Back in Hawke's Bay, the health board is studying the long-term impacts of the campylobacter outbreak.

John Buckley's family believe he could be the fifth victim of Havelock North's gastro outbreak.

The 78-year-old died three weeks ago of a stroke, but prior to the crisis, they say he'd been healthy.

"He's spent a lot of time in hospital. He's had a lot of unexpected surgeries and bleeds and heart problems, kidney problems, all due to the campylobacter," said Kat Sheridan, Mr Buckley's daughter.

Ms Sheridan says the family wishes, "you can turn your tap on again and trustfully drink the water. Surely that's all we want".

Before any changes can happen Cabinet will need to approve the recommendations made in the review of water management. 

It comes after Havelock North's gastro crisis was a wake-up call for New Zealand. Source: 1 NEWS


Massey University's Vice Chancellor faces reprimand from colleagues over handling of Don Brash debate debacle

Massey University’s Vice Chancellor is facing reprimand from her colleagues over her handling of the Don Brash debate debacle.

At the October meeting of the Massey University Academic Board, two motions to censure Vice Chancellor Jan Thomas will be debated, after she banned Don Brash from speaking on campus.

They relate to her decision to cancel the Don Brash event, and for the process of decision making revealed in today’s Official Information Act (OIA) release.

Massey University vice-chancellor Jan Thomas and Don Brash Source: rnz.co.nz

"I think it’s safe to say there's a proportion of staff who aren't happy with how things have proceeded," Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor, Chris Gallivan told Newstalk ZB.

If the motions are passed, they won’t have much more effect than to register staff's disapproval of the way Prof Thomas handled the affair.

"The University Council is the Vice Chancellor's boss. It will be for the University Council to deal with this as they so wish, it’s not up to the Academic Board," Prof Gallivan says.

The University Council has been approached for comment by 1 NEWS.

But the former National Party leader is calling on the university's Vice Chancellor to resign. Source: 1 NEWS