27 Mar 2024

Authorities investigate allegations Gloriavale women trafficked to India

9:18 pm on 27 March 2024
A sign which welcomes people to Gloriavale Christian Community.

A sign which welcomes people to Gloriavale Christian Community. Photo: RNZ / Jean Edwards

Authorities are investigating concerns from a leading human rights lawyer that women from Gloriavale were trafficked to India and entered coerced marriages.

Last night on TVNZ's docuseries, Escaping Utopia, former Gloriavale members Theophila Pratt and Rosanna Overcomer travelled to India and met with Pratt's sister Precious.

Precious moved to India seven years ago and now has six children.

She was among five women born in Gloriavale, who had mothered children in India.

Pratt and Overcomer were deeply disturbed by what they found and contacted Deborah Manning - a specialist in refugee, immigration and human rights law - and asked her to look into their concerns.

Manning told RNZ today she had written to the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment and police.

"We've raised serious concerns of trafficking under the Crimes Act as well as coerced marriage," she said.

"As expected the agencies have clicked immediately into gear and are taking this very seriously. It's led out of MBIE, in terms of the trafficking issue, along with NZ Police and there are other agencies involved as well. So it's being taken seriously and there's active work underway."

Lawyer Deborah Manning speaking about the inquiry during a press conference this afternoon.

Lawyer Deborah Manning. Photo: RNZ/Cole Eastham-Farrelly

MBIE's head of irregular migration and trafficking Kylie Seumanu confirmed she had received a letter.

"MBIE is aware of a connection in India and, along with other agencies, have recently received a formal legal letter on this matter. Immigration Investigators will be making enquiries and assessing the letter, along with the other relevant agencies," Seumanu said.

Police also confirmed their awareness of the connection in India and that they had received a formal legal letter.

They would not confirm whether they were investigating trafficking.

Oranga Tamariki and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade were also involved.

An MFAT spokesperson said the ministry was aware of the issues raised in Escaping Utopia.

"The Ministry has not been approached to provide consular assistance at this stage. We are, however, actively looking into the situation and considering what further actions should be taken."

A Gloriavale spokesperson provided a statement to RNZ: "We are in constant contact with our brethren in India and have heard no complaints from them on these issues.

"Our New Zealand women who went to India and married there did so of their own free will and with the convictions they had in their own hearts. Some of those people have also returned to New Zealand with their families, and then gone back to India. Family relatives from New Zealand also visit them regularly."

During the documentary, Pratt spoke to Faithful Stronghold, the leader of Gloriavale's outpost in rural India.

He asked why she had come to India and she told him she had concerns for her sister and her nieces, and did not want them to experience any sexual abuse.

"What is rape? Raping happens from one side," Stronghold responded.

"Indian men are very forceful around women. It's part of the culture and there's a lot of Indian men who force themselves on to a lot of women because of a shortage of ladies in India. There are times these ladies have struggled because of India, culture, Indian men. So a lady's life is much harder than men's - it always is, it always will be."

Alarming documentary

Manning said the footage was shocking.

"I think anyone watching the Gloriavale documentary would have been alarmed in terms of what they saw of the Gloriavale Indian community and what they heard in terms of the descriptions of conditions there and the conditions and circumstances in which the women from Gloriavale in New Zealand went to that community."

She described what had happened to those women as being unique in New Zealand.

"I can't think of being involved in situation like this."

Stronghold's comments alluded to a rape culture in the community, Manning said.

Precious told her sister her passport was held by Stronghold.

"Children are being born there to Kiwi mums that are undocumented - their births aren't even registered and so if those New Zealand mums wanted to come back, how could they travel?" Manning said.

"The children don't have documentation or passports, so that's a real concern in terms of freedom of movement and impacting their choices. We also heard that they don't seem to have control of their own passports. These are all serious issues, it's multi-layered and we've also got issues concerning consent and coercion . . . and it's complicated because this particular issue is happening outside New Zealand's jurisdiction."

Manning was pleased with the seriousness with which authorities were treating the matter.

"As soon as the authorities were made aware of concerns under the Crimes Act, they immediately moved into action and they're actively looking into that. So I really just want to let them do their job and trust them to do that."

Brian Henry

Barrister Brian Henry. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

It comes as barrister Brian Henry on Tuesday filed legal proceedings in the High Court accusing a group of government departments of failing to protect the women and children of Gloriavale.

MBIE's Labour Inspectorate is among the respondents, alongside at least the Department of Internal Affairs, Oranga Tamariki and the Ministry of Social Development.

Henry told Morning Report instead of helping the women he represented, the government had enabled their abusers.

"They were left alone in an organisation that, from what I can see, is run by self-entitled males who think they're their little play things," Henry said.

On 6 December, he wrote to Prime Minister Christopher Luxon, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, Act Party leader David Seymour as well as Attorney-General Judith Collins, Minister for Social Development Louise Upston and Education Minister Erica Stanford.

"My clients seek immediate action at ministerial level to close the Gloriavale community," Henry's letter said.

"Enabling ongoing abuse of little children by the dint of their birth into the community is a gross dereliction of their duty.

"On the previous governments watch, the government and officials involved have enabled the continuation of the entrapment of those born into the community, a community that the police have now demonstrated has bred and will continue to breed males who commit serious sexual abuse, serious criminal offending against vulnerable young females."

Today, only Louise Upston confirmed she had received and read the letter.

Luxon, Seymour and Stanford said they were unaware of or had not read it.

ACT Deputy Leader Brooke van Velden

Minister Brooke van Velden was questioned by Labour MPs why she discontinued a taskforce established under the previous government to ensure the rights of Gloriavale's members. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The Ministry of Social Development, Oranga Tamariki, the Department of Internal Affairs and the Labour Inspectorate would not be interviewed or comment on the legal filings against them.

The Department of Education said it could not talk to the issues related to the legal proceedings.

But the Labour Inspectorate and Internal Affairs did confirm there were ongoing investigations into Gloriavale and the Christian Community Trust - the charitable trust controlling the community's finances.

There were also fiery scenes in the House of Representatives this afternoon as Labour MPs questioned Coalition Minister Brooke van Velden on why a taskforce established under the previous government to ensure the rights of Gloriavale's members was discontinued by van Velden in December.

"I don't believe that added bureaucracy is necessary to ensure the safety of children within Gloriavale," she said, to howls of outrage from the opposition benches.

"There are specific areas of law where every one of my Cabinet colleagues who has an area of specific interest for Gloriavale and the rights of children will be working to uphold that within their own agencies."

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