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

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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.

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

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

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."

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