30 Jun 2016

Minister dismisses racial profiling claims

8:36 pm on 30 June 2016

Customs does not racially profile passengers entering New Zealand or target them because of their religion, the Minister of Customs says.

National MP Nicky Wagner.

National MP Nicky Wagner. Photo: NZ GOVERNMENT

Earlier this week, RNZ News spoke to 14 members of New Zealand's Muslim community who said they had been stopped by Customs for several hours while returning from abroad, questioned about their travels while their bags and mobile devices are extensively searched.

They believed the searches were because of their ethnic background or because they were Islamic.

One man of Tunisian descent, Mohamed, said he was held at Auckland Airport for two hours after backpacking through Southeast Asia and again while returning from visiting family.

In both cases, he was asked to show proof of his travel details and hotels, and to hand over passwords to his electronic devices, and his photos were used to check his information.

Another man of Somali background, Abdelsalam, said he and his pregnant wife were searched and questioned for four hours last year while on their way back from Dubai.

National's Hamilton East MP David Bennett told Customs Minister Nicky Wagner at a select committee today that Somali members of his electorate were regularly subjected to similar treatment.

"I had dinner with some of my Somali community on Monday, and they said sometimes they can get held up for three to four hours at the border coming back from their country.

"And these are people who have worked for 10 years in government departments in Hamilton, they pose no risk at all, and yet just because of the country of origin that they've gone to it makes it then difficult."

But the minister said the department did not target passengers because of either race or religion.

"We can't single them out because we don't have any way to collect any information about race or religion, so we can't do that," she said.

"We can see them, but we stop people because there's some kind of information that we think is risk. And it might be where they travel, it's often geographically where they've been."

Ms Wagner said that information could include where the passenger was travelling from, how long they've spent their time there, where they bought their ticket and who bought it for them.

"We have to be vigilant obviously, but we certainly don't racially profile. We would never do that."

But Labour's customs spokesperson, Rino Tirikatene, said it smacked of racial profiling.

"To me, that's more than just the standard intelligence or passenger information. It's very clearly racial profiling in my mind."

Green MP Kennedy Graham said there needed to be more than just anecdotal evidence.

"You've got be careful that you're not leaping to conclusions in terms of racial or religious profiling because there may well be behind that some evidence for their actions, you'd have to give them the benefit of the doubt," Mr Graham said.

The government is planning to introduce legislation later this year that will give Customs the authority to demand the passwords to travellers' electronic devices.

Ms Wagner said the current review of the Customs and Excise Act 1996 would limit the conditions in which electronic devices are searched.

"We will only be able to look at e-devices if there's a threshold."

"People come through and talk to our customs agents, then we can look at their travel goods, it's only after that we'll be looking at devices."

She said that threshold would likely be a "reason to suspect", and would include origin of travel, but wouldn't be used to racially profile passengers.

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