When it became known that Algerian refugee Ahmed Zaoui was in prison for more than a year without charge, there was a clamour for his immediate release.
Zaoui had the misfortune to arrive in New Zealand as western countries were tightening their borders against terrorists 15 months after the 9/11 attacks. The Zaoui story ended happily with his release on bail two years later, the arrival of his family and his settlement as a law-abiding citizen of Palmerston North.
But the story may not end so well in future for asylum seekers who land on New Zealand’s shores with legislation about to be introduced to Parliament which seeks to bar refugees and asylum seekers by first mis-labelling them people-smugglers and illegal migrants.
The proposed new law seeks to introduce the draconian detention centres of the Australian Howard government which that country is now moving away from because of the cost of mandatory detention and its devastation on people’s health and well being.
Families would be split with women and children perhaps 200 kilometres away from their men. Only unaccompanied children would be exempt. Yet this is the country whose prime minister Peter Fraser invited 837 Polish people, most of them children, to live in Paihiatua in 1944.
The immigration amendment risks breaching the Refugee Convention, which recognises that the refugee has the same rights as other citizens in the land of asylum, and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights as well as the principles of Catholic social teaching particularly the dignity of the human person, the common good and solidarity.
Many refugees who arrive in New Zealand have escaped long and devastating wars in their home countries and some will have spent years in a transit camp. They may be traumatised. Their mental health may be fragile. They may not have identification. They will almost certainly not know the best tourist destinations or how to get there.
But, unlike a couple who were intercepted at the New Zealand border recently, they will not be bringing a great deal of electronic equipment in what luggage they are carrying.
It is important that those who are enacting the laws of our country are familiar with international conventions that protect those unlucky enough not to be born here as well as knowing the appropriate definitions – asylum seekers are not the same as people smugglers.
This month we mark World Refugee Day on June 20 and, on June 17, Refugee Sunday. Catholic teaching, especially the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25ff), reminds us to welcome the stranger and have compassion for those who have nowhere else to lay their heads.
Also see Asylum seeker law will destroy human dignity.