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Please take me to a safe place: The imprisonment of asylum seekers in Aotearoa New Zealand

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“Please take me to a safe place” are the desperate words of a 20-year-old African asylum seeker pleading to be released from prison in Auckland. After fleeing danger in his home country, he thought he would finally be safe in Aotearoa New Zealand. However, he was instead arrested and detained in a criminal prison solely on immigration grounds. He was only released after his refugee status was recognised, seven months later.

In 2014, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention made a 15-day visit to Aotearoa New Zealand. In their report presented to the Human Rights Council in 2015, they highlighted their concern that Aotearoa New Zealand “is using the prison system to detain irregular migrants and asylum seekers, including Waikeria Prison, Arohata Prison for Women and Mt. Eden Corrections Facility. These prisons, and police stations, do not provide separate facilities for immigrants in an irregular situation or asylum seekers.”

They recommended the abolishment of this practice. In the subsequent years after the visit from the working group, the Government of Aotearoa New Zealand has continued to detain asylum seekers and irregular migrants in police stations and prisons.

Between the years 2015 to 2020, Immigration New Zealand imprisoned approximately 86 people seeking asylum. Whilst the majority of people who apply for asylum in Aotearoa New Zealand are not detained at any stage, legislation and practice still allow for the detention of some asylum seekers solely on immigration grounds. Immigration New Zealand can imprison an asylum seeker to hold them for future deportation pending the determination of their claim if they are considered at risk of absconding within Aotearoa New Zealand, pending satisfactory establishment of their identity, or on broad “threat to security” grounds. In some cases, the Immigration Act 2009 effectively reverses the presumption of liberty, contrary to international human rights standards.

These 86 people had to pass through a complex hybrid of civil and criminal detention processes. This usually began by being arrested at the airport or in the community, detained in a police cell for several nights, brought before a judge in the District Court, and taken to a prison managed by the Department of Corrections or a private prison provider contracted by the Government. Their detention in a police cell or prison ranged from several days to several years. Despite not being charged with a criminal offence in Aotearoa New Zealand, asylum seekers detained in a prison are are subject to essentially the same regime as remand accused prisoners.

Our findings from research conducted into the continuation of these policies in the last six-year period demonstrate that they have put refugees and asylum seekers at risk, and in some cases, constitute human rights violations. Their stories and the policies and practices that have contributed to the findings of this report are a stark picture of the human rights failures and harms of this policy for the people who are subject to it.

Our investigations have documented a case where a reported survivor of torture, later recognised as a refugee, was allegedly raped whilst being double bunked in prison. Immigration New Zealand admitted to imprisoning several other people, later also recognised as refugees, who were past survivors of torture, mistreatment or sexual or gender-based violence. We also interviewed a case where a man reported being caught up in the notorious “fight clubs” at Mt Eden Corrections Facility, resulting in him being forced to regularly fight other remand prisoners. Three men spoke of how their treatment led them to want to end their life. All spoke of the negative impacts on their well-being from their prison experience, and the shock that Aotearoa New Zealand would detain asylum seekers. One man spent over three years of his life in limbo in prison as his claim for asylum was processed and his hand was broken in an altercation with a cellmate. All those we interviewed reported being double bunked at some point with remand prisoners in prison and it was standard practice to be strip searched. Language barriers for some meant they suffered in silence and couldn’t even ask for help. Three were detained in prison despite a community group or family member offering to host them in the community. Their accounts and experiences are included throughout this report and tell the human side of the complex web of systems, policies, laws and processes that they are subjected to. Their brave stories echo why international human rights bodies have repeatedly noted the inappropriateness and harms of the use of police stations and prisons to detain asylum seekers and other immigration detainees and that it should not take place. Amnesty International is calling for immediate and urgent reform to end these practices.