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NZ to review controversial asylum seeker prison policy

The Government has launched a review into New Zealand's controversial asylum seeker rules - which can see some people who had escaped violence and torture held in prisons, some for years. 

File: Woman in jail Source: istock.com

Associate Immigration Minister Phil Twyford told 1 NEWS the Government wanted a review to ensure it was meeting international human rights obligations. 

It comes after a highly critical report released by Amnesty NZ earlier this year showed 86 asylum seekers were arrested and detained in New Zealand prisons - solely on immigration grounds.

Amnesty International NZ executive director Meg de Ronde today said the impact of the policy was "horrific". 

"For some who have come here seeking refuge, Aotearoa New Zealand has piled trauma, on top of trauma. Instead of a compassionate welcome, they were sent to prison for months or even years," de Ronde said. 

"Right now, people seeking asylum can be detained in criminal justice facilities, this practice is contrary to international human rights standards and has caused indescribable, enduring harm.  

"They deserve dignity and decency of care, just like you and I would. This review is the first step to righting these wrongs."

"Abolishing this policy would be a massive human rights victory," she said. 

The Asylum Seekers Support Trust called the review a "fantastic step on the journey to stop this inhumane practice".

Twyford said strong arguments by new Labour MPs Ibrahim Omer and Vanushi Walters, along with Amnesty's report convinced him "it was time to take a fresh look at the rules and processes in this area".

"As someone who came to New Zealand as a refugee, Ibrahim strongly believes New Zealand should be able to hold its head high for the way we welcome people to this country, and respect international human rights standards.

"He and Vanushi, who was a human rights lawyer before entering Parliament, argued this issue has been a concern amongst the human rights community for many years and needed to be addressed."

Twyford said only a small amount of asylum seekers were imprisoned, "but nevertheless we want to make sure we are meeting our international human rights obligations".

He hoped to have the review conducted by Victoria Casey QC to be ready for the Government to consider by the end of the year, "then we’ll look at her recommendations with a view to tidying this area up".

In the five years to 2020, there were 86 asylum seekers held in Corrections facilities for time periods between one to 1177 days.

The Amnesty report stated New Zealand's policies from 2015-2020 "have put refugees and asylum seekers at risk, and in some cases constitute human rights violations".

It said the experiences of some asylum seekers who spent time in prisons "are a stark picture of the human rights failures and harms of this policy for the people who are subject to it". 

The report stated the detention in a police cell or prison "ranged from several days to several years".

"Despite not being charged with a criminal offence in New Zealand, asylum seekers detained in a prison are subject to essentially the same regime as remand accused prisoners."

It said several people who were later recognised as refugees had been imprisoned, had previously experienced torture, mistreatment or sexual or gender-based violence.