Syrian-Kiwis fed up with profiling at Auckland Airport

Dr Samer Soud and his wife have had their phones examined upon return to New Zealand (Supplied/Dr Samer Soud)
Dr Samer Soud and his wife have had their phones examined upon return to New Zealand (Supplied/Dr Samer Soud)

New Zealand Syrians travelling through Auckland International Airport say they are being subjected to hours of questioning about their stance on ISIS and terrorism.

In some cases, travellers are forced to hand over their devices and passwords and have their emails scrutinised by Customs officers.

Ashraf Almoukdad, who is known as Tony, has been a New Zealand citizen since 1991 but told Newshub he's stopped almost every time without fail.

“I have surrendered my phone and passwords to be searched through without putting up a fight, but it’s invasive and feels wrong. After you’ve travelled for hours, to get stopped for several more, it’s exhausting,” Mr Almoukdad says.

After lengthy searches that return no results, he's let go every time.

Mr Almoukdad is a well-respected member of the community. He represents the Syrian Society, and travelled with the likes of former MP and current Auckland mayor Phil Goff and other parliamentarians to Jordan in 2013.

In a statement, Customs told Newshub it is well within its rights to search bags and gather intelligence, but will only do so upon assessing whether someone is a risk or not.

Passengers are not profiled on their race or religion, but rather other factors, the spokeswoman says. She said nationality is a factor they consider, if the traveller originates from a region of risk.

Mr Almoukdad, like many other Syrians who live here, travels on a New Zealand passport and moved here before the Middle Eastern country fell to civil unrest.

Customs says it will search a device if it has reason to be suspicious, but claims it doesn't search many phones or laptops.

It says it searches devices to verify travel plans and statements, or to find objectionable material, including terrorism-related content.

Mr Almoukdad actively decides to co-operate when he comes through Customs, but for some, the experience creates tension. If those held don't co-operate, they have been told they will be held indefinitely in detention and blocked from entering New Zealand.

Customs says it is working with the Syrian community to better educate them on their rights at the border should they come under questioning.

But, despite this, Mr Almoukdad says he doesn't know his rights, and after inquiring about them many times, he still doesn't. Nobody gave him answers.

Ashraf Almoukdad says he's searched and let go almost every time he travels (Supplied/ Ashraf Almoukdad)
Ashraf Almoukdad says he's searched and let go almost every time he travels (Supplied/ Ashraf Almoukdad)

"If you're arrested, you know you have a phone call and a right to a lawyer. What do you get in Customs? You don't know," he says.

Questioning can delay Mr Almoukdad's return home by up to six hours and many of his friends have been subject to the same scrutiny.Samer Soud has lived here for 22 years, and in the past two years he has travelled back and forth from Sydney six times to visit his son.

Mr Soud has come to expect he'll be stopped. In December 2015, he sent his wife and son through first on the suspicion he would be 'randomly selected' and pulled aside for questioning.

He wasn't wrong. Two hours later, he rejoined his family outside the terminal.

"The worst crime I've committed is paying a parking ticket late - why are they treating me like a criminal?" he says.

The officers are doing their jobs, Mr Soud added, but it's frustrating that 'random selection' generates the same person countless times.

"One woman officer understood my frustration, and after she searched all my things she said there's no reason the system kept picking me up over and over again - she promised to report it to her superiors," Mr Soud told Newshub.

But it hasn't stopped. Last summer, they were among the last to still be at the airport one night. After they were questioned at length about why they travelled to Sydney, Customs demanded their phones and passwords and searched his wife’s underwear.

Smart-gates installed by Customs accelerate the trip for those travelling on New Zealand passports, but Mr Soud says he can't get through the gates without a once-over.

Abdul Eyad, who has been a citizen for more than 20 years, says he understands the need for Customs to ask a lot of questions, but there is a line.

"They'll pull you aside, and ask for just about every detail from your time away, such as 'What hotel room did you stay in?' right down to your religious views, and your opinions on terrorism. They'll leave the room, they'll come back after a while and ask more," Mr Eyad says.

Despite their frustration, they also want what's best for national security and understand the need to vet, but don't understand why them every time.

"Many Syrians move from their country to be in a peaceful place. New Zealand is peaceful to us, and we want to keep it that way too," Mr Eyad says.