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New Zealand immigration official subjects Vietnamese businessman to harrowing ordeal

A view of Auckland City. A Vietnamese entrepreneur looking to invest in New Zealand says he was repulsed by discriminatory treatment by an immigration official there. PHOTO: SCENERY-WALLPAPERS.COM

Around the middle of last year, a friend told me about his plans to open a business in Auckland, New Zealand. He said the potential was great and had the advantage of allowing his family to live in a beautiful place and his children to benefit from good quality education abroad.

Curious, I asked for more information and learned that my friend was taking advantage of a program under which foreigners can register to do business in New Zealand and be issued a long term business visa (LTBV) if they satisfied certain criteria. My friend introduced me to a legally accredited immigration advisor who had assisted him and his family with the documents.

I found that I could meet the criteria for getting the LTBV, but wanted to see and get a feel for the country before deciding to apply. I asked the advisor to arrange a visit to New Zealand, authorizing him to submit documents for getting a visitor's visa in mid-November 2012. 

Since it was estimated that the visa would be issued before Christmas, I booked my tickets and accommodation for a stay of two weeks starting January 10. However, just before Christmas, I was requested to submit proof of financial capacity and business experience following the criteria of the LTBV program, even though I hadn't officially applied for it. I did as requested, but as of January 6, I had not received the visa, forcing me to cancel my flight and hotel booking.

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On January 8, the New Zealand consulate in Ho Chi Minh City informed me that my visa application had been accepted. Since I had changed my plans, it was not until March 9, 2013 that I managed to travel to New Zealand on a Singapore Airlines flight. I set out with the enthusiasm of an entrepreneur and a traveler to see a new country that my friend had described as strikingly beautiful and peaceful.

After 20 hours in the air and more time in transit, I landed in Auckland at noon, picked up my luggage, bought some New Zealand dollars, and headed toward the exit, looking forward to a comfortable bed at the hotel, a nap and a good time exploring Auckland.

At the customs gate, an officer asked me to step to the luggage check counter. I was unconcerned and happy to oblige. For a full hour, the officer carefully searched my luggage (which contained clothes, common medicine, two cameras and an iPad), going so far as to examine even the seams, but found nothing unusual.

I thought the search itself was a bit unusual, and was tired and relieved as I repacked my belongings. Then the customs officer asked me to see the immigration officer, and my nightmare began.

I was interviewed for more than 10 hours (with breaks in which I was made to wait), directly at first, and through an interpreter later. They interrogated me at length about my purpose in coming to New Zealand, and I kept telling them the truth.

However, the officer told me that he did not believe me. He said that I wanted to get into New Zealand to do something illegal and was not planning to return to Vietnam. He kept asking me questions that were ridiculous. "Why did I choose to return to Vietnam on that day, and not any other?" He said I had to give him a persuasive answer; that I had to convince him I would leave New Zealand on the intended day and would not try to stay in the country indefinitely.

He warned me that if I could not convince him he would refuse my entry. I told him that I have a family with two young children, a business and all my assets in Vietnam, and that all the documentation provided to get the visa showed clearly that I was a man of decent means.

I repeatedly told him that my objective in New Zealand was to get a practical view of the business environment and life in the country before deciding if I wanted to sign up for the LTBV program. I had a clear schedule with a confirmed return air ticket and hotel reservation. I did not have any relatives or friends in New Zealand and I had no reason to remain there.

He said he was not persuaded. After the long journey, the hour-long luggage check and 10 hours of questioning as though I was a criminal, I could not think of anything else to tell him. Tired and frustrated, I told him that if I was not granted permission to enter the country, I would go home. The officer decided to annul my visa, saying he was not convinced that I would return and suspected I would try to stay on illegally in New Zealand.

After being denied entry, at 2:00 a.m., the New Zealand police escorted me to the earliest available flight back to Singapore. My passport and boarding pass were handed directly to the cabin crew of Singapore Airlines. Resentment over my treatment choked me so much that during the 10-hour flight, I could not eat or sleep despite the extreme fatigue.

But my ordeal was still not over.

When the plane landed in Singapore, I was asked to wait until all passengers had disembarked and a Singaporean policeman took me to a quarantined area to wait for the flight back to Vietnam. It was 5:00 a.m. (local time), and I was kept in the separated area like a criminal. I was not allowed to go out for breakfast. I was not allowed to use a mobile phone or iPad or even to read books while waiting.

At 10:30 a.m., Singaporean police escorted me to the flight to Vietnam. At 12:00 p.m., on March 11, 2013, I was back at Tan Son Nhat airport, after 48 hours of flight, transit, detention, and being treated like a criminal.

Apart from the loss of money, time, effort, the psychological damage I suffered because of the discriminatory attitude of a New Zealand immigration officer was severe.

Immediately after my return, I requested my immigration advisor to send an official complaint and demand an official explanation for my situation of being issued a visa but refused entry to New Zealand. The advisor informed me that an official letter had been sent to the Immigration Department and it would take four to eight weeks for a reply. As of today, I have not received any reply.

My New Zealand nightmare did not end there. When I went to Singapore on May 16 of this year for a business trip, I was detained at the immigration office of Singapore for more than an hour and questioned on why I was refused entry to New Zealand. My fingerprints were taken as though I was a suspect in some crime. I have visited Singapore many times over the past few years and had always been treated with respect. But now, even such a familiar country also viewed me suspiciously, because of the irrational and unfair actions of a New Zealand officer apparently prejudiced against the Vietnamese people.

I have visited several countries in Europe and Southeast Asia, but I have never experienced discrimination like I did in New Zealand.

The refusal of entry to New Zealand has clearly had implications stretching to other countries. The sharing of my personal information with other countries and totally unjustified treatment as a potential criminal by the Immigration Department of New Zealand has placed me under suspicion everywhere.

I have not harmed New Zealand in any way or violated any of its laws or the laws of any other country, yet the department's actions have harmed me deeply, and they are an abuse of the basic human rights of dignity and respect that every living being is entitled to.

I find it difficult to believe that a government representative of a country considered to be developed can behave in such an irrational and inhuman manner. Why did the consulate of New Zealand in HCMC not request more information to be satisfied that I would return to Vietnam before they issued the visa? If in doubt, why did the consulate not interview me before issuing the visa? Why did they have me waste my time, money and effort to fly to Auckland before demanding more convincing proof? Did the consulate here overlook something that caused the immigration officer to doubt the visa? Did the immigration officer suspect that the New Zealand consulate in HCMC was accepting bribes, as documented in the exposure of a visa officer at the US consulate recently? Or was it straightforward racism, as some of my friends have suggested since?

These questions arise in my mind because I certainly did nothing wrong in obtaining the visa and was open and straightforward about my purpose.

I would like to make Vietnamese people aware of the discrimination they may face when visiting New Zealand for any reason. Maybe nothing will go wrong, but they may encounter serious prejudice that not only causes immediate damage, but leaves a lasting impact.

For me, judging by the behavior of its customs and immigration officers, New Zealand is no longer a beautiful and peaceful country, but one which has citizens who discriminate against other people, and think nothing of violating their basic human rights.


Karen Urwin (Border Operations Manager, New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment):

We have received a complaint from this passenger and it will be dealt with via our formal complaints process. Please note however that not all elements of the complaint letter are accurate.

The passenger concerned was interviewed by Immigration New Zealand border staff on arrival in New Zealand. 

Information provided by the passenger during the interview was inconsistent with information provided by him in his visitor visa application and he was therefore denied entry to New Zealand. 

The man was offered the opportunity to contact the Embassy of Vietnam in Wellington for advice or assistance after being refused entry permission but declined to do so.

Procedures for granting entry to New Zealand do not differ by country of origin.

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By Nguyen Anh Tuan*

*The writer is a Vietnamese businessman who lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed are his own.

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