The borders will open for certain overseas terror victims and their families now a sentencing date has been set for the March 15 attacker, Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Those who can’t afford to travel will “attend” the terror sentencing via video link, the Immigration Minister says. David Williams reports

The Immigration Minister is demanding officials give urgent help to overseas victims of the Christchurch terror attack and their families.

Yesterday, High Court Justice Cameron Mander announced the terrorist, who pleaded guilty to mass murder at two Christchurch mosques in March last year, will be sentenced over several days in August. This could pose problems for those overseas wanting to attend the hearing because of border closures related to coronavirus.

For months, the Ministry of Justice and the Immigration department have been discussing possible exemptions for identified victims and support persons to travel to New Zealand for the sentencing.

Mander’s minute said Immigration New Zealand wasn’t able to confirm whether overseas victims and their families would get limited exemptions. This raised questions about why the agency took so long to come to that conclusion, and why the minister didn’t step in.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway says he was briefed by officials a few days ago.

“We can deal with that matter pretty swiftly. We’re looking at options as to how we can allow the victims and their next of kin to travel to New Zealand, and I think that can be dealt with some speed.”

How quickly? “I think that needs to happen within days, and that’s what we’re working towards.”

Lees-Galloway says it’s his intention that those who need the exemption will get it.

Now there’s a date for the sentencing hearing, the families of the victims and some victims themselves will be able to book flights. However, Lees-Galloway says the Government realises not many routes are available and they might be costly.

“There will be other barriers to some people being able to travel to New Zealand. That’s why one of the main priorities has been ensuring that people are able to attend the sentencing and to participate in the sentencing in a remote fashion in a video link.”

Asked if taxpayers will foot the bill for flights, the minister says: “The solution for people who can’t afford to travel is to use that remote link.”

Courts do pay for people from overseas to attend hearings. The Ministry of Justice’s chief operating officer Carl Crafar says under an assistance scheme run by Victim Support, victims wanting to attend the hearing might be eligible for financial contributions towards travel.

The Government is spending billions of dollars in post-Covid stimulus. Why won’t it just foot the bill for victims and their families to travel here for the sentencing hearing?

While noting this financial assistance is the responsibility of the Justice Ministry, Lees-Galloway says: “Because there’s a good solution in the remote access to the hearing and my understanding is there are people who intend to take that up.”

The Immigration Minister says not having the humanitarian exemption already in place won’t make a difference.

“No, I don’t accept fewer people will be able to travel. We’ll make sure that the exemption process takes their situation into account. They’ve only just received the date, they’ll be booking their travel now, I should imagine, and we’ll make sure that there’s no unnecessary barriers for them.”

Backing his officials

Immigration New Zealand has been criticised for handing exemptions to heavily subsidised film productions and highly paid yachtsmen, while adopting a “do nothing” tactic for an underclass of trapped migrants.

Yesterday, the Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt called for the Government to provide temporary migrants with emergency benefits, because of inadequate help from a new foreign nationals package. He said the situation faced by these migrants was increasingly dire.

Lees-Galloway backs his officials. “Immigration New Zealand is doing a very good job under extraordinary circumstances at the moment,” he said. “Immigration New Zealand are dealing with a range of unprecedented issues in a very challenging environment and doing a good job in that environment.”

In May, Newsroom was told a regular at Linwood Islamic Centre’s mosque, a Bangladeshi man who was there on the day of the shooting, still didn’t have permanent residency.

The Immigration Minister says he isn’t aware how many victims of the mosque attacks and their families might have Christchurch response visa applications outstanding, or how many family members of those affected might also be waiting for approval.

He says border restrictions and visa processing present a challenge for Immigration New Zealand.

“You can’t help but feel for people who are caught up in all of this. The pandemic has disrupted millions of lives around the world and people who are trying to cross borders, anywhere in the world, have been disrupted more than anybody else.

“It is a challenging time for the people involved, but Immigration New Zealand are very sensitive to that and looking to process visa applications as quickly as they can and give people clarity and certainty around their ability to travel to New Zealand whilst the border restrictions are in place.”

Agencies are quietly withdrawing support for terror victims. Police are scaling back family liaison officers while the Ministry of Social Development is pulling back its case management service.

Muslim Association of Canterbury general secretary Feroze Ditta, who carries bullet fragments in his leg, told Radio NZ: “We are being palmed off to other people who do not necessarily know the background of what has happened and they have to familiarise themselves again [with our cases].”

Lees-Galloway says the Government has worked tremendously hard alongside the Muslim community to deliver the support they need.

“The feedback that I have had from the Christchurch Muslim community, and in fact the Muslim community across the country, is that they appreciate the way the Government and its agencies got around that community, worked alongside them to understand what their needs were and have looked to respond as best we can.”

In March, as the national lockdown began, the Christchurch shooter pleaded guilty to 51 charges of murder, 40 of attempted murder and a charge of committing a terrorist act. He will be sentenced at a multi-day hearing starting on August 24.

Meanwhile, the Royal Commission into the terrorist attack is scheduled to submit its report to the Government by the end of this month, after several deadline extensions.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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