Low risk of people smuggling
Political rhetoric and comments about Australia’s refugee situation on Manus Island have not increased the risk of people smugglers targeting New Zealand, Immigration NZ information shows.
Trans-Tasman tensions have been rising over the situation of asylum seekers on Australia’s decommissioned offshore processing station in Papua New Guinea.
In 2013, former prime minister Sir John Key made an offer to the Australian Government to take up to 150 refugees as part of our annual refugee quota.
The offer was refused, but remained on the table, and when Jacinda Ardern became prime minister last year, she reconfirmed the offer to Malcolm Turnbull’s government.
Again, Australia refused the offer, saying it would give priority to a refugee deal with the United States, but Ardern pushed the point, encouraging Australia to take New Zealand up on the deal.
This led to Australian officials leaking information to the media saying it had stopped people smuggling operations aiming to get people to New Zealand.
This was seen as a play by the Australian Government to remind New Zealand of the geographical protection it enjoyed, partly thanks to Australia. However, Ardern said it was more important to do what was right than what was popular, and she did not back down on her position.
There had also been speculation, partly fuelled by the Australian intelligence leaks, that the pro-refugee statements by Ardern and other Kiwi politicians would lead to heightened people smuggling activity.
Immigration NZ head Nigel Bickle yesterday told the parliamentary foreign affairs select committee that people smugglers would use any public comments or political comments to further their cause, ‘‘which is getting bums on boats, basically’’.
However, people smuggling activity, and the risk of asylum seekers trying to get to New Zealand by boat, had not increased in the past year, or as a result of recent political statements.
New Zealand was not immune to being a target for people smugglers but the risk remained low, Bickle said.
People smuggling was the third largest criminal enterprise in the world by value after drugs and guns.
Immigration NZ worked with partner countries, including Australia, as part of the Bali Process, which 48 members had signed up to. This work included using social media, and getting information into countries of origin, to fight people smuggling propaganda, he said.
While Australia had given no indication it would take up New Zealand’s offer to take refugees from Manus Island or Nauru, Immigration NZ had a plan for the process it would need to carry out to screen and verify who was eligible to come to New Zealand as a refugee.
The agency’s general manager, Steve McGill, said all refugees who came to New Zealand had to be United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) mandated.
While Papua New Guinea was a signatory to the UN refugee convention and had given refugee status to about two-thirds of the 400 asylum seekers on Manus, New Zealand would have to check Papua New Guinea’s process and run its own screening, which would include on-the-ground interviews, checking health, character, and gathering biometric data.
A process like that was not unprecedented – thanks to the Tampa refugees who came to New Zealand in 2001 – however, it was unusual.
Bickle said each country had sovereign control over its borders, and if New Zealand did end up taking any of the Manus Island or Nauru refugees, Australia would have the right and the capability to initiate a border screening process that could stop those refugees from entering Australia ‘‘through the back door’’.