Court hears of mass refugee bid from Buddhist temple

By Tony Stickley, New Zealand Herald, Jan 17, 2006

Auckland, New Zealand -- Hundreds of people from a Buddhist temple in Auckland applied en masse for refugee status, a court was told today. John Boggs, an intelligence analyst with the New Zealand Immigration Service, said claims from Thais escalated in 1998/99.

He was appearing as a Crown witness at the Auckland District Court today in the case of John Hikuwai, who is charged with immigration offences. It was the top country for people seeking refugee status for the following four years, Mr Boggs said.

The total number of asylum seekers from all countries peaked at 3000 in 1999, taking years to settle appeals and final determination. Mr Boggs said Thai claims of persecution were manifestly unfounded.

As a result of the influx and abusive claims, the Government suspended a visa-free arrangement with Thailand in September 2000.

But Mr Boggs said that around the end of that year a "new scheme" emerged, involving members of the Thammagay (Wat Thai) Buddhist Group of New Lynn filing refugee claims.

They alleged fear of Thai authorities because of their religion and also fear of Muslims on their return to Thailand.

Some 285 Thai nationals lodged refugee applications. Mr Boggs said that the main people behind the scheme were two monks from Thailand, a Bangkok businssman and Hikuwai.

"The latter, together with others, helped the asylum seekers obtain drivers' licences issued by a Maori Government of Aotearoa Transport Office, adoption by the Government of Aotearoa and work permits purportedly issued by the Governement of Aotearoa," Mr Boggs said in his brief of evidence.

He said that some of the applicants had been in the country unlawfully for up to five years.

Mr Boggs maintained that the scheme was initially an attempt to frustrate the ability of the Refugee Status Branch to hear and therefore determine refugee claims.

He told the court that over 230 virtually identical claims were lodged.

Mr Boggs said that claimants wanted to be interviewed in Pali (or Sanskrit), a language used in prayers and chants and not used by people to converse.

Few if any of the applicants understood or spoke the language, Mr Boggs told Judge Lindsay Moore, and efforts to find a Pali-speaking interpreter in New Zealand were unsuccessful. None of the claims were approved.

Mr Boggs said that Hikuwai was a "central figure" in the Wat Thai venture. Hikuwai, 52, of Wainui Bay in Northland, who is described as an immigration consultant, is charged with selling Thaen Charoephan and her husband Nongnuch Ruengsakul purported work permits for $500 each in 2002.

He is also charged with breaches of the immigration legislation, including submitting refugee application forms that were allegedly altered after being signed by the applicants.