Terror attack does not warrant knee-jerk immigration reaction

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Sam Sachdeva

Sam Sachdeva

Wellington, September 9, 2021

                                                                                                                    Newsroom File Photo by Lynn Grieveson


As the government fast-tracks changes to terrorism laws, it is being urged to provide more support to de-radicalise extremist offenders and avoid any ‘knee-jerk reaction’ on immigration.

In the wake of last week’s (September 3, 2021) Auckland terror attack, much of the focus has, understandably, gone on an apparent gap in counter-terrorism law which, if plugged in time, could have stopped the terrorist’s release.

The news that the man also held refugee status, complicating efforts to deport him, has also put a spotlight on the immigration system.

While Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Grant Robertson said on Sunday (September 5, 2021), the government was “continuing to review the immigration law” alongside terrorism changes, some experts are cautioning against any major overhaul of the system.

Peter Moses, a Barrister specialising in Immigration Law, told Newsroom that he was unconvinced that the immigration system was broken in deporting refugees.

“I am a little concerned about a knee-jerk reaction where you have got someone like this who is as much a mental health case as an example of terrorism,” he said.

Complex Refugee System

Moses likened the approval of refugee claims to the presumption of innocence in the criminal law system, with the desire to avoid convicting innocent people meaning some ‘guilty’ people would go free.

“It is really important that the standard of proof for refugees is no too high, because refugees will often struggle to substantiate their claim – not because it is not true, but because they are outside of their home country, they cannot go to the authorities and ask for proof of persecution.

“If the legal hurdles were set too high, then deserving people might not be able to get the protection they deserve,” Moses said.

Tribunal, a critical safeguard

With the Immigration and Protection Tribunal approving upwards of a third of the appeals made to it by refugees, it served as “an absolutely critical safeguard” against incorrect decisions by immigration officers.

Amnesty International Aotearoa Executive Director Meg de Ronde told Newsroom that the organisation did not want to see a complex and unusual case like that of the Auckland terrorist be used to justify major immigration changes.

People granted refugee status had already suffered greatly both before and after they got to safety, she said. 

The government had recently launched a review into the use of criminal justice facilities for immigration detention, while there were wider issues with a lack of support and lengthy process delays for asylum seekers (those who sought refugee status after arriving in the country, rather than through New Zealand’s formal intake).


Image from Auckland International Airport Facebook


Amnesty International concerns

“That is incredibly debilitating, that can take years and years of their lives where they feel like they’re unable to participate, they are unable to work – it can be hugely demoralising for mental health,” de Ronde said.

Amnesty also had concerns about the government fast-tracking its counter-terrorism legislation, the fourth time such laws would have gone through either under urgency or without a thorough consultation period and believed it would impinge on a range of human rights without making the country safer.

The best approach was community-led interventions to prevent radicalisation and extremism, rather than “behind closed doors practices,” de Ronde said.

No Rehabilitation Programme

Dr Chris Wilson, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Auckland specialising in Violent Conflict and Terrorism, said that there did not seem to be suitable government programmes to help rehabilitate extremist offenders in prison, with some support only kicking in when a prisoner was released.

“New Zealand kind of gets caught in a bit of complacency, that the numbers are small – which they are compared to overseas – we don’t have hundreds of foreign fighters coming back, and we don’t have hundreds of people being radicalised and so on…So, the government tends to go the other way and has not set anything up yet, which is a bit of a gap now,” he said.

Wilson said that it was hard to know how effective de-radicalisation programmes were in deterring repeat offenders, with recidivism rates for terrorists low even among those who didn’t go through such initiatives.

They were also of limited use for “the most violent and committed people” such as the Auckland terrorist, who had refused a psychological assessment as a first step to further treatment.

The Control Order Regime

The Control Order Regime for returning terrorist offenders, created in 2019 and set to be expanded in the current counter-terrorism legislation before Parliament, did not mandate the use of social support services, in contrast to some other countries.

Wilson said that offenders should be provided with access to skills training and educational opportunities to help reintegrate them into the community, along with access to trauma counselling and other multi-disciplinary support.

“The knee-jerk stuff has to stop and there needs to be a real general overarching approach for all of these types of people coming from very different extremist angles, but then the other thing is they also need to be very tailored to that individual’s experience and their grievances and why they radicalised in the first place.”

But Wilson said that he also supported the urgent passing of the counter-terrorism legislation, including the introduction of a planning offence, saying there was a sufficiently high bar crossed by the Auckland terrorist to have merited action.

“It is not just that … somebody mentioned they were going to plant a bomb or they went paintballing, and so therefore they were training and preparing for a terrorist attack.

“I think we just, at some point, have to have faith in our legal system to look at these things very, very closely and very soberly,” he said.

Sam Sachdeva is National Affairs Editor at Newsroom based in Wellington. He covers Foreign Affairs and Trade, Housing and other issues of national significance. The above story has been published under a Special Arrangement.


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