After two asylum-seeker boat capsizes in Australian waters this past week a visiting international refugee expert has called for the NZ government to reconsider proposed immigration law changes.
"The New Zealand government's proposed amendment to the 2009 Immigration Act to deter asylum seekers is an over-reaction that is probably in breach of international humanitarian laws and conventions," says Professor Max Abbott, director of AUT University's Centre for Migrant and Refugee Research.
Tomorrow the centre hosts international refugee expert Professor Derrick Silove as part of the fifth International Asian & Ethnic Minority Health & Wellbeing Conference, taking place in Auckland. From the University of New South Wales, Professor Silove is Director of the Psychiatry Research and Teaching Unit which is at the forefront of refugee and post-conflict mental health research worldwide. Silove also wrote 'No Refuge from Terror' which looked at the impact of mandatory, indefinite detention on the mental health of refugees seeking asylum in Australia.
Professor Silove will speak tomorrow (Thursday 28 June) from 9.00-10.00am. It's the first time a dedicated refugee health stream has featured at the conference, which is being held at the University of Auckland's Tamaki Campus.
"Copying aspects of the harsh Australian approach to asylum seekers will damage New Zealand's positive reputation in refugee and humanitarian matters. It is unlikely to act as a deterrent and could drag asylum and refugee issues into a highly charged political arena that will be socially divisive and destructive," says Professor Abbott.
The Australian treatment of 'boat people' through mass detention under harsh conditions has tarnished that country's reputation and been an embarrassment to fair-minded Australians, says Professor Abbott.
"While there is a need for New Zealand to have secure borders and be able to deal with the unlikely arrival of a large group of asylum seekers on masse, proposals for mandatory detention for an initial six month period under a 'group warrant' are inappropriate."
Plans to treat people who arrive in a group larger than 10 differently from other refugees and asylum seekers - for years after their refugee status has been confirmed - is discriminatory. According to Abbott, these measures would have an adverse impact on their health, adaptation and contribution to New Zealand society.
"This country is highly regarded internationally for its refugee policies which include taking up to 750 refugees per annum through the United Nations system and offering asylum to a much smaller number of people who reach our borders in other ways and meet refugee criteria. New Zealand is a long-time signatory of the United Nations Convention on Refugees and has an international obligation to fairly assess all people who arrive here seeking asylum. It is important that they are considered on a case-by-case basis and do not languish for indeterminate periods in custody."
Professor Abbott says research in Australia and elsewhere has shown that indeterminate detention in camps leads to major mental and physical health problems. Asylum seekers come seeking refuge, not further ill treatment, uncertainty and abuse of fundamental human rights, he says.
"We very much support the Refugee Council of New Zealand in its call for a multi-party accord on how a future boat arrival could best be managed, balancing humanitarian and border protection obligations. We can learn from the blunders that have been made across the Tasman and continue to hold our heads high. We can avoid refugee and broader issues of race and ethnicity becoming political and media fodder and fuelling prejudice and discrimination. We, as New Zealanders, are bigger than this."
What: Professor Derrick Silove discusses refugee issues at the 5th International Asian & Ethnic Minority Health & Wellbeing Conference.
When: Thursday 28 June, 9.00-10.00am.
Where: University of Auckland's School of Population Health, Tamaki Campus, 261 Morrin Road, Glen Innes.
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