A Law Foundation-backed project is helping ease concerns among New Zealand’s Muslim community about their treatment by security authorities.
The Human Rights Foundation project has been prompted by complaints about the treatment of Muslims in airport security checks and in their interactions with the SIS in particular. They claim to have experienced unjustifiably excessive scrutiny and cultural insensitivity in their dealings with border officials.
Human Rights Foundation chairperson Peter Hosking says the project team has compiled a dossier of anecdotes from New Zealand Muslims about their experiences with the authorities. The Foundation is now working cooperatively with agencies including Customs, SIS, the Police and MBIE about how they can work more sensitively with the Muslim community.
“It has become apparent to us that there is a significant problem. Our aim is to take as cooperative an approach as we can in what is quite a difficult area,” he says.
The complaints have included repeated, excessive scrutiny of Muslim New Zealanders returning home from holidays or conferences. Cultural concerns include the computer storage of photos of Muslim women without their hijabs (head coverings), and the handling of the Koran.
“The concerns are that this community is being targeted in an uninformed and insensitive way, and in violation of their rights, when alienating the community may actually be counter-productive to effectively protecting New Zealand.
“But I want to emphasise that all these issues can be resolved. There has been a lot of cooperation from the agencies – it’s a case of so far, so good,” Mr Hosking says.
A round-table meeting is to be held soon with the relevant agencies to clarify roles and responsibilities. Peter Hosking identifies signs of flexibility, such as Customs considering relaxing its previously rigid refusal to allow inbound travellers it is questioning to make cellphone calls.
“They didn’t allow calls because a drug courier could alert someone who was waiting for them,” he says. “They are now looking at making the use of cellphones a bit more flexible where it is clear the traveller is not suspected of importing drugs. Small things like that can make a big difference.”
The project aims to produce a best-practice model for agencies working with the Muslim community on counter-terrorism and human rights. It will also produce resources for the community, such as wallet-sized “know your rights” cards and fuller web-based information on issues such as dealing with interviews.
“We want the community to be resourced to deal with these situations. If the outcome is that all organisations better-understand this community and are clearer about what their responsibilities are, that can only benefit everyone.”
Mr Hosking says Law Foundation support was critical to the project going ahead.
“We don’t have access to government funding, which is why Law Foundation funding has been so important. But apart from the funding itself, I think the very fact that the Foundation is supporting this work also helps reinforce its credibility.”
This project is another in a long line of community-focused projects the Foundation has supported over the years.