Iran – Amnesty International and Christian Converts

KEITH LOCKE (Green) to the Minister of Immigration: Does he agree with Amnesty International that it is unsafe for proven Christian converts to return to Iran; if not, why not?

Hon DAVID CUNLIFFE (Minister of Immigration) : My agreement or otherwise is immaterial. Although I respect the work of Amnesty International, determination of these matters does not lie with politicians or with interest groups but with a well-respected, independent appeals process that has access to all of the facts and hears the case in a fair and unbiased manner.

Keith Locke: I raise a point of order, Madam Speaker. I do not think the Minister has addressed the question, because the situation in Iran is certainly relevant if people are going to be deported there.

Madam SPEAKER: I think the Minister did address the question.

Keith Locke: Is the Minister really going to stand by and watch Iranian *Ali Panah die due to a hunger strike or be deported back to Iran where Amnesty International so rightly believes he will not be safe?

Hon DAVID CUNLIFFE: As the member well knows, it is not possible for me to go into the details of an individual case, but it is well known that the gentleman concerned has a number of options that would allow him to leave New Zealand at any time.

Russell Fairbrother: Is it always essential that people served with removal orders are involuntarily returned to their country of origin?

Hon DAVID CUNLIFFE: By no means. The vast majority of people who are served with removal orders depart New Zealand voluntarily to either their home country or a third country. They can leave at any time to any country that they have a right of entry to. I note that a Scoop article recently published a report noting that: “Mr Panah could sign a paper that would authorise his deportation back to the last port he had exited before arriving in New Zealand.”

Gordon Copeland: Is the Minister aware that under the law of Iran it is illegal to convert from Islam to Christianity, that the maximum penalty is death, and that such executions occasionally occur; if so, is it not unconscionable to deport Iranians now living in New Zealand who have so converted and whose conversion is genuine and verifiable?

Hon DAVID CUNLIFFE: Yes; and I warrant the widely respected *Refugee Status Appeals Authority was also well aware of that fact when it reached its decision on his appeal. By implication from the member’s question, if I were to hold as a matter of policy that no Christian convert could be returned to the Republic of Iran, I suspect that the churches would swell in membership.

Peter Brown: Does the Minister accept that allowing people to remain here, simply because they have allegedly changed their religion, will make us appear like a soft touch; and will he confirm that that is not the impression New Zealand wants to give to the wider world?

Hon DAVID CUNLIFFE: Government policy in this area seeks to strike a proper balance between a fair and humane approach that is respectful of everybody’s human rights, and our obligations under refugee law. At the same time, if we have established a proper legal process with due appeal rights, then we must abide by that process when decisions have been made.

Keith Locke: I seek leave to table a speech from 30 October on the deteriorating situation in Iran in relation to Christians, by New Zealand’s UN representative, *Rosemary Banks – Leave granted.

Hon DAVID CUNLIFFE: I seek leave to table an article from Scoop news on Friday, 10 August, which notes a report that Mr Panah and his lawyer were offered a deal —

Madam SPEAKER: Leave is sought to table that document. Is there any objection? Yes, there is objection.

Peter Brown: Will the Minister offer the House his view as to whether he is concerned by a situation when someone arrived here 4 years ago, was denied refugee status, yet some time later — 4 years later — declares he is a Christian and demands to stay; is the Minister comfortsble with that position?

Hon DAVID CUNLIFFE: I can make no comment on any individual case, and I would not seek to enter an opinion on the genuineness of any individual’s conversion to Christianity. But the member and his party are supporting a bill that will soon be debated in this House that will tidy up an appeals system that many commentators have held to be excessively open ended.