How a media request led to controversial Australian commentator Avi Yemini being barred entry to New Zealand

An alert for border officials to intercept far-right Australian commentator Avi Yemini if he tried to travel to New Zealand was prompted by a media request to Immigration NZ, documents reveal.

The media inquiry on August 19 led to what one official called "online sleuthing" into the background of Yemini, who planned to fly to Wellington to attend an anti-government protest.

One official found a 2019 news article reporting the Australian had a conviction for assaulting his former wife, which the official noted meant he could be stopped from boarding a flight to New Zealand on character grounds. 

An alert was then raised. It told border officials of Yemini's conviction and to stop him from entering New Zealand if "there are no exceptional circumstances present". It linked to the online news article.

It wasn't until two days later, on August 21, that Interpol Wellington contacted its Canberra counterparts saying New Zealand Police wanted to stop Yemini and an associate from entering the country. It asked for any information showing Yemini as being of "bad character" or linked to criminal groups or far-right extremists. 

Immigration NZ received information from the authorities "regarding Mr Yemini's previous criminal conviction in Australia that appeared to be of concern", a lawyer for Yemini was later told.

The next day, when Yemini tried to board a flight at Melbourne International Airport to New Zealand, he was stopped and turned around

Since then, he's made claims the border decisions were "politically motivated". But Immigration NZ says his conviction is to blame.

Border alert

The timeline of events is revealed in hundreds of pages of documents Newshub has obtained under the Official Information Act. They show correspondence between staff at Immigration NZ and with other border and police officials about Yemini.

Yemini is an Australian correspondent for right-wing Canadian news site Rebel News, which has been accused of spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories. 

He frequently courts controversy and has had Facebook pages banned for breaking community standards. In 2019, Yemini was convicted and fined for assaulting and harassing his ex-wife. 

In one of the documents Newshub has received, Interpol Wellington said Yemini has been described as a "far-right extremism commentator".

"Avi Yemini has proudly called himself at a London protest in 2018 - 'the world's proudest Jewish Nazi'," the correspondence said.

Yemini has said he made that comment in "jest" and has also previously expressed disgust at being labelled a Nazi.

He planned to fly from Melbourne to Wellington on August 22 to attend an anti-Government demonstration at Parliament led by Destiny Church leader Brian Tamaki. Yemini said he intended to report on the protest. However, he never made it.

Commentator Avi Yemini.
Commentator Avi Yemini. Photo credit: Getty Images.

The documents show that on Friday, August 19, Immigration NZ received a media request asking if it was taking any action against Yemini and another commentator, Rukshan Fernando, ahead of the pair coming to New Zealand. It noted that Yemini had previously been convicted of assault.

When preparing a response to the inquiry at 4:20pm that afternoon, a media advisor asked a senior Immigration NZ official if any "warnings" had been placed on Yemini or Fernando.

The official replied by saying it was the first time he had personally heard of the case. Immigration NZ has since confirmed to Newshub it first became aware of Yemini's intention to come to Aotearoa from the New Zealand Police that day.

The New Zealand Police refused Newshub's requests for official information on multiple grounds, including for security and privacy reasons and because it may "prejudice the maintenance of the law".

The senior official asked for Yemini's background to be looked into.

"If Mr Yemini can be identified it may be useful to place an alert on him to seek clarification of the conviction allegation," the official said.

A little over an hour later, at 5:42pm, a manager in Immigration NZ's border and visa operations section wrote that Yemini had a ticket to Wellington for the following Monday. 

They had also done some "online sleuthing" into Yemini, but suggested further "clarification on convictions" was sought as "due diligence".

Later that evening, at 8:46pm, a border alert was created. 

It said Yemini "appears" to be subject to a specific immigration instruction that says someone can be denied entry to New Zealand if they have been "convicted at any time of any offence involving violence". That's unless they have a character waiver.

The alert told officials to "please interdict and offload if there are no exceptional circumstances present" and linked to a 2019 Jewish Chronicle media article detailing his assault conviction, for which he was fined.

A border alert against Yemini.
A border alert against Yemini. Photo credit: Newshub.

On August 23, a day after Yemini was stopped from boarding his flight to New Zealand, documents show two officials were discussing the case via email.

"What prompted border to raise the 1st alert?" one asked.

The other replied: "We received information as a result of a media enquiry Friday 19 August, open source searches confirmed criminal convictions in Australia, an alert was raised to interact with him."

In a statement to Newshub, acting general manager border and visa operation Sarah Clifford said the alert allowed Immigration NZ to speak to Yemini to get more information "around the character concerns". Clifford said in this case "the concerns stemmed from a media article".

"It is standard practice for INZ to raise an alert to interact with a passenger if there are concerns requiring additional information," Clifford said.

"This information can only be obtained by speaking to the passenger either at check-in or on arrival. A border alert provides us an opportunity to interact with the passenger and obtain information to make an assessment around entry permission."

An official confirms the border alert was prompted by the media request.
An official confirms the border alert was prompted by the media request. Photo credit: Newshub.

Interpol gets involved

In the time between the border alert being raised on August 19 and Yemini being stopped at Melbourne International Airport on August 22, Interpol Wellington became involved.

The agency contacted Interpol Canberra looking for information on Yemini and Fernando (the associate who was eventually allowed into New Zealand). It said New Zealand Police held no information about the pair.

"NZ Police would like to stop the two [Yemini and Fernando] from entering NZ and URGENTLY seek any information regarding criminal convictions or any information tending to show they are individuals of bad character, associated to criminal groups and individuals or far-right extremism groups". 

That message was previously leaked, leading to a police investigation into how it entered the public domain. Police told Newshub this month that enquiries remain ongoing. 

Interpol Wellington's message to Interpol Canberra.
Interpol Wellington's message to Interpol Canberra. Photo credit: Newshub.

The New Zealand Police refused Newshub's request for further correspondence between Interpol agencies.

However, documents received from Immigration NZ show Interpol Wellington did go on to tell officials that Yemini is associated with Kiwi social media commentator Chantelle Baker. Information obtained by the agency also suggested Yemini and Fernando had a propensity to "incite and agitate people with opposing views", it said.

"Immigration Services NZ (MBIE) have also been advised and have been briefed to speak to both individuals should they travel to NZ and assess their intentions of travel with a view to having them turned at the border. As indicated that is the intention but an assessment is required by Border staff at the time."

Immigration NZ has confirmed to Newshub that Interpol Wellington also provided information about Yemini's conviction.

'Unhappy' Yemini stopped

The Interpol Wellington information was circulated among border officials the next day, Monday, August 22,

One noted they had "seen a little bit of Yemini".

"He does have some kind of journalistic credentials," they said. 

That morning, Yemini was stopped at Melbourne's airport and spoken to via telephone by a border official based in Auckland. 

A report shows the conversation lasted about 40 minutes, with Yemini telling the official about his background working for Rebel News and his plan to report on the protest in Wellington.

The border official noted that "news reports located during open source enquiries" showed Yemini had convictions for assault and harassment for which he was fined. 

They made the decision to offload Yemini, not believing they were any "extenuating circumstances" to justify granting a character waiver.

Before the official could advise the Australian commentator he could apply for a visa to come to New Zealand, Yemini ended the call.

As the border official spoke to Yemini, others were emailing about the case.

"Sarah is giving the decision now, ineligible to travel using section 97, doesn't meet character a.5.25. He is unhappy," one said.

Another replied: "Border doing a great job as always."

Part of the report made following the border official's conversation with Yemini.
Part of the report made following the border official's conversation with Yemini. Photo credit: Newshub.

After being denied boarding, Yemini quickly made the matter public on his social media accounts and on the Rebel News website

He launched a legal fund and had a lawyer question Immigration NZ over whether Yemini's conviction met the threshold for denying him entry.

In the months since, Yemini has taken to his YouTube account and spoken to some media outlets, including New Zealand's The Platform, claiming the decision to stop him flying to New Zealand was "politically motivated" and a coordinated effort by government departments.

Immigration NZ, however, points only to Yemini's conviction.

"We can confirm that the reason Avi Yemini was denied boarding his flight from Australia to New Zealand was because he did not meet the immigration requirements due to his criminal conviction.