The ‘mass arrivals’ immigration bill aims to legalise the detention of asylum seekers without a warrant for up to 28 days. This runs contrary to international human rights law, writes Dr Kat Eghdamian.
Opinion: When you hear the term ‘mass arrivals’, what does it bring up for you? Do you feel calm and excited or fearful and concerned? It is likely that your reaction will be connected to synonymous terms like ‘mass boats’, ‘influx’, ‘swarms’ or ‘floods’ of people crossing borders ‘illegally’.
Since 2015 and the peak of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe, such terms have become commonplace in debates and reports on migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees. All too often, they then make their way into law.
We’ve now seen this happening here in Aotearoa New Zealand with the Government’s urgent and unexpected Immigration (Mass Arrivals) Amendment Bill. Among other things, it aims to legalise the detention of an asylum seeker without a warrant for up to 28 days. While the Government says it is trying to be practical about how to process mass arrivals, the measure is inhumane and runs contrary to international human rights law. We have a duty to speak up against the framing of this Bill. Whether well-intentioned or not, words and terms have power.
All too often, words like ‘mass arrivals’ misrepresent realities in ways that have very real consequences for human lives. Not all lives, of course, but very specific lives and a framing of a certain kind of human being. If you come into Aotearoa with a visa for work you may be called a ‘migrant’, and if you move to another country for the same purpose, you may be called an ‘expat’. However, if you have no choice but to flee your home and seek refuge and safety in another country, you are called all sorts of things, the labels of which will categorise you as either being deserving or undeserving of dignity, and even life itself.
I came to this country as a child refugee and have spent most of my adult life advocating for refugee lives because I believe that no matter who you are or where you are from, you deserve a safe and secure existence. Over the years, I have met many refugees from across Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and now here. I have heard stories about loss, fear, survival, and hope. And while the tales of resilience and bravery are many, the greatest and most recurring stories I am told relate to dismay, confusion, and sadness about the lack of empathy and understanding about refugee lives and experiences held by others and the harm it causes.
Repeatedly, it is evident that some lawmakers, policymakers, and practitioners simply do not understand how and why people are forced to flee their homes and the realities of the journeys they take to seek protection. Above all, there is a disconnect between the human rights of all people and the responsibilities of those with power to uphold and protect those rights.
The ‘Mass Arrivals’ Bill suggests we must prepare for a deluge of large boats filled with people illegally trying to migrate here. While there has not been a single boat to arrive in this country in this way and no signs of it taking place in the future, it nevertheless instils an unfounded fear in the public of some type of imminent threat – an invasion of sorts.
While some would like to argue the threat is real and valid, irrespective of how a person arrives in this country, all people have the human right to seek asylum. It is enshrined in international human rights law through the 1951 Refugee Convention, of which Aotearoa is a signatory. Last year, Victoria Casey KC said in an independent review of our asylum system that it was wrong to detain claimants in prisons – something we had been doing for some time. Immigration New Zealand accepted the recommendations, which upheld the rights of asylum seekers, but the Bill is now proposing the opposite. In the end, it is the responsibility of the Government to ensure it protects and upholds the fundamental human right to seek asylum, which is inextricably linked to the right to life. And this cannot be up for debate.
The Turkish poet, Nazim Hikmet, once said “I want the right of life, of the leopard at the spring of the seed splitting open – I want the right of the first man.” This right of life is at the heart of every refugee story. It is linked to every other right, and fundamental to existence. A person becomes a refugee when they are denied the right to exist safely, securely and with dignity in their home country. That denial is never chosen, and it is never desired. The ways in which we choose to respond to that right will have repercussions not only for the individual and the country but for generations to come.
So, it is critical to ask what values we hold dear in this country and how we want to treat people who make their way here. I hope that we will prioritise rights over fear and inclusivity over prejudice. And if the intention behind the Bill truly is to be practical and fair, then let’s channel resources and energy into strengthening the existing system so it can respond to all people seeking protection, whether they come as one or as many.