Allegations of rape, assault of asylum seekers in prison, new report reveals

Shocking allegations of rape, assault and attempted suicide have emerged from asylum seekers who Amnesty International argues are being unfairly detained in prisons by Immigration New Zealand (INZ).

The human rights organisation has released its first extensive report into the treatment of 12 of 86 detained people who sought asylum here between 2015 and 2020.

Amnesty International said at every stage there were failures to ensure basic rights to a fair process.

“The excuses that this is a one-off situation no longer hold water because now we have evidence in black in white that the system is fundamentally broken and is causing major harm,” said executive director Meg de Ronde.

“Whether it was the physical or mental abuse or trauma in prison, whether it was the lack of access to justice, these are all instances where the Government is failing in its obligations to this vulnerable group of people.”

Of 16 asylum seekers who were detained in prison between January 2020 and March 2021, three still remain.

They have shared their painful journeys of seeking refuge with the Herald. Their identities have been kept anonymous for privacy reasons.

A man who fled his home country for a better life in New Zealand instead tried to end his life in Mt Eden prison. He was detained after authorities discovered him living unlawfully in New Zealand.

He has spent seven months in jail awaiting a decision on his claim to be granted refugee status. He has already been declined once and is appealing against the decision.

“Three cellmates have treated me badly,” he told the Herald in writing. “They stop me doing my religious practice.”

Another man seeking asylum who has been in prison for six weeks said he has been bullied and threatened by cellmates.

He is feeling doubtful about the success of his claim for refugee status.

“I have low expectations of success due to the way I have been treated by Immigration so far,” he told the Herald.

“I feel scared and alone.”

He said he has no contact with his family.

Meanwhile, a reported survivor of torture in his homeland, later recognised here as a refugee, was allegedly raped while being double-bunked in prison, Amnesty’s report has revealed.

“Immigration New Zealand knew that the man had alleged rape by his cellmate. He was taken to hospital for an immediate forensic investigation so charges could proceed, but there was no translation services at hospital and it didn’t go ahead,” said de Ronde.

“The man was unable or too scared to know what to do.”

Another prisoner helped him write a letter to his lawyer 18 days after the alleged rape. He was released to the Refugee Resettlement Centre in Auckland after advocacy by his lawyer, de Ronde said.

Others in the report spoke of being verbally abused by prison guards, physically assaulted by other prisoners to the point their bones were broken, feeling forced into prison “fight clubs” and feeling violated during strip searches.

The Government is being urged to investigate the allegations.

“The time has come for an independent review into these practices. While the system may look good on paper, in practice it fails to protect the rights of asylum seekers,” said refugee lawyer Deborah Manning.

“The response should be at an interdepartmental and ministerial level, to examine the detention of asylum seekers in New Zealand and our compliance with our international obligations.”

National immigration spokeswoman Erica Stanford said asylum seekers should be treated with respect.

“Allegations of rape and verbal and physical abuse is very concerning and we would expect Immigration to be investigating this.”

In a statement to the Herald, Immigration New Zealand said allegations of assault were referred to the Department of Corrections “as they are responsible for the welfare of individuals who are detained in correctional facilities”.

It said it could not comment on individual asylum or refugee claims due to privacy reasons.

The Department of Corrections has been approached for comment.

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi declined to comment before seeing the full report.

Amnesty International is calling for an immediate end to detaining asylum seekers in prison.

It has a raft of recommendations for “immediate and urgent reform”, including introducing a total maximum duration for detention and using alternative locations for detention such as the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre.

“They are using detention almost as a form of first resort for many cases rather than last resort,” said de Ronde.

“In many cases, the reasons aren’t justification for criminal detention.”

Immigration New Zealand claims individuals are “generally released into the community and the judicial process for detaining individuals is only followed where absolutely necessary”.

“Corrections houses asylum seekers in remand sections of their facilities rather than with convicted prisoners, where possible.”

Journey to prison

An individual may be detained if they arrive in New Zealand without valid identity documents or if they are liable for deportation based on their unlawful immigration status in New Zealand, Immigration New Zealand said.

But de Ronde said it’s very common for asylum seekers to have false documents and this should not be held against them.

“Often if you are fleeing a country you don’t have time to get a visa, or it’s just physically not possible to get the appropriate passport or it could be incredibly dangerous to do so,” she said.

Security reasons used for detaining asylum seekers in prison can be unreasonable, according to Asylum Seekers Support Trust general manager Tim Maurice.

“A claimant was 10 years old when a civil war ended in his country. He arrived in our country 10 years after that and was asked if he is part of a rebel group.

“He says no. He’s asked if he has any family [that’s] part of a rebel group, he said he had a couple of cousins involved and that’s the reason they used to detain him.”

Out of a total of 16 asylum claimants detained between January 2020 and March 2021, 15 were unlawfully in New Zealand and one had no current passport, documents obtained by the Herald under the Official Information Act reveal.

Three claimants were kept in prison for more than 500 days and seven for a period lasting between 100 and 200 days.

One who spoke to the Herald has been detained in Mt Eden prison for six weeks.

He had been living in New Zealand unlawfully after originally travelling on a student visa, but he claims he needed safety.

In prison he had been targeted by gang members who he shares a cell with, causing him panic attacks that he has to take medication for.

“[I am] begging the Government to please save my life. I want to live my life, I don’t want to die,” he said.

De Ronde and Maurice said asylum seekers often do not have access to a refugee lawyer or a translator at their first point of contact with authorities, making it difficult for them to understand why they are being detained.

Police or Corrections staff can be uneducated about the rights of an asylum seeker, de Ronde claims, and urgent training is required.

Alternatives to prison

Immigration New Zealand uses a Warrant of Commitment every 28 days to extend an asylum seeker’s time in prison, but there is no maximum limit to how long a claimant can remain behind bars.

“INZ will consider a range of factors on a case by case basis, including the individual’s personal circumstances, and adjust their detention status where required,” it said in a statement.

“This may include releasing them on reporting conditions into the community or to INZ’s Te Āhuru Mōwai o Aotearoa (Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre).”

Maurice is advocating for asylum seekers to be released to a hostel run by the trust in Auckland where they can work on their claim for refugee status and begin to integrate into society.

He said no one should be detained for longer than 28 days.

“That’s plenty of time to do biometric testing, find out who the person is and if they have identity issues.

“These people aren’t coming here to cause trouble. They’re coming here to find a safe place to live for them and their families just like all of us want.”

Amnesty recommends Immigration New Zealand explores alternative detention locations and requests proper funding for these.

“Some of them are young men who are just starting out in their lives and they deserve a chance to rebuild their life,” said de Ronde.

“These are people who have a huge amount to offer … and we would like to see the Government protect them as they are obligated to do under international human rights law.”

Still waiting

Lucas* fled Turkey fearing for his life and is seeking asylum in New Zealand. He told the Herald his time in prison “was like hell” and he is still suffering the psychological effects.

He was arrested in his home and spent time in a police cell before being taken to Mt Eden Corrections Facility for five and a half months.

He was unsure why he was arrested, but claims he was forced to sign a document that he could not understand as he did not have adequate translation services.

He lied about his reasons for being in New Zealand because he feared he would be deported back to Turkey, he told the Herald, where he believes he would die.

Immigration New Zealand released him from prison when the pandemic hit in March 2020.

But he still has not had a decision on his claim – despite being interviewed in July 2020 – and therefore cannot obtain a work visa.

“Asylum seekers need to be honest about their story but for this to happen they need to feel safe, so they shouldn’t go to prison,” Lucas said.

“It doesn’t make sense to put asylum seekers in prison, you don’t want me to become a criminal so why treat me like one?”

*An alias has been used for privacy reasons.

National helplines

Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP).

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO).

Healthline – 0800 611 116

Samaritans – 0800 726 666

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