Eyebrow-raising $25m to prevent ‘boat people’

The Wellbeing Budget contained a surprise immigration initiative, aimed at stopping ‘boat people’. This isn’t a new risk, so Laura Walters asks why the big boost now?

The Government has allocated an extra $25 million over four years to preventing people being smuggled to New Zealand by boat.

It was a surprise new initiative in the 2019 Budget, and seemed more in line with what an Australian budget initiative might look like, with its anti-boat people rhetoric.

There was suggestion from some that this was an anti-immigration policy, and could be credited to New Zealand First.

However, the Government maintains the money is targeted at keeping people safe, and preventing them from attempting the treacherous journey.

There is nothing new about New Zealand’s immigration officials working to prevent people from getting on boats in Asian countries – like Malaysia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka – and attempting to make it to New Zealand.

So far, no one has made it.

Immigration New Zealand (INZ) assistant general manager Stephen Vaughan said INZ currently had staff in Indonesia and others based in Wellington doing strategic co-ordination, operational management and intelligence work.

“Having an on-the-ground presence in Indonesia has proved invaluable in building relationships and enhancing New Zealand’s intelligence collection,” he said.

However, the significant increase in funding (from just over $1m a year, to close to $6m a year), rightly raised eyebrows, especially as part of a Wellbeing Budget.

Last year, a Parliamentary select committee heard from INZ head of settlement Steve McGill that chatter from people-smugglers, who were selling New Zealand as a destination, had not increased as a result of the country's change of government.

The suggestion was Jacinda Ardern’s push for Australia to resettle some of its Manus Island and Nauru refugees in New Zealand had led to New Zealand being seen as a more viable option for asylum-seekers.

While talk from people-smuggling syndicates targetting New Zealand had not increased as a result of Ardern’s comments, the Government said the general risk of people-smuggling was increasing.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said people-trafficking was on the rise around the world, and in the Asia-Pacific region.

Boats were getting bigger, and people-smuggling ventures were becoming more sophisticated, he said.

“That’s as much about having good processes for dealing with claims of asylum, as it is about preventing people from seeing New Zealand as a soft touch."

About a year ago, Malaysian authorities stopped a tanker, supposedly headed for New Zealand, with more than 100 Sri Lankan asylum seekers onboard. This was believed to be the first credible attempt in terms of a boat that could have made it to New Zealand shores.

Lees-Galloway said the Government was investing in people and technology to help disrupt people-smuggling ventures before they got on the water.

“We want to save people’s lives, and stop them putting their lives at risk and attempting a journey which, as I say, no one has successfully achieved.”

INZ’s Vaughan said the new funding included provision for extra staff to increase New Zealand’s mass arrival prevention and response efforts, and boost the department’s intelligence capability.

Lees-Galloway said it was not yet decided where the additional staff would be placed offshore.

Ardern also backed the spending, saying it was consistent with New Zealand’s longstanding policy, and would save lives.

The extra spend would likely please Australia, which in the past has accused New Zealand of not pulling its weight in this area.

The Immigration Minister said efforts needed to be coordinated within the region, but denied any pressure had come from Australia to increase funding or New Zealand’s presence.

When asked whether preventing foreign fighters returning to Asian countries like Indonesia and Malaysia from attempting to make it to New Zealand, he said this was “not specifically” about foreign fighters.

The politics of resettlement

There is no doubt some coalition politics at play, with the Green Party opposed to the extra spending, and calling for a higher refugee quota. Meanwhile, New Zealand First supported the new initiative.

The funding increase needed to be looked at as part of New Zealand’s wider settlement policy, which is currently under review, and public scrutiny.

In 2013, the former National government changed the law to allow for the detention of mass arrivals by boat.

Human rights observers, including Green MP Golriz Ghahraman have criticised the law, which allows for the detention of those seeking asylum.

When asked whether the extra money into prevention at the point of departure meant the 2013 law could be repealed, Lees-Galloway said that law would stay as it was, “for now”.

“That’s as much about having good processes for dealing with claims of asylum as it is about preventing people from seeing New Zealand as a soft touch,” he said.

“I would hope that the largest deterrent is the fact that no one has made it here, and that it remains a treacherous, dangerous journey."

Meanwhile, the Government is coming under pressure to change its refugee policy to allow those from Africa and the Middle East - who don't have family links in New Zealand - to resettle here.

“We need to ensure there are legitimate pathways to people seeking refuge and asylum... Because if those are working well, there is less incentive for people to take the risk of engaging with people smugglers.”

The regional allocation and family links parts of the refugee policy were under review – as it was every three years.

Lees-Galloway had described the decision not to resettle those from Africa and the Middle East as part of the general policy as “discriminatory”.

And while he would not say – likely for fear of getting offside with Winston Peters who did not see an issue with the policy – it was clear Lees-Galloway did not favour the ban on refugees from Africa and the Middle East.

Lees-Galloway was consulting with the Greens and New Zealand First and was expected to take a proposal to Cabinet soon.

Labour had shared its position on the policy with its coalition partners but he refused to elaborate further in public.

Having a sound resettlement policy was part of the picture when it came to deterring people-trafficking, Lees-Galloway said.

“We need to ensure there are legitimate pathways to people seeking refuge and asylum ... Because if those are working well, there is less incentive for people to take the risk of engaging with people-smugglers.”

Last year, the coalition announced the refugee quota would rise from 1000 to 1500 by 2020.

The Budget allowed for $140 million over four years to support the quota increase, and to "ensure successful refugee settlement outcomes".

Meanwhile, a community sponsorship pilot had also run over the past year, allowing for a further 25 refugees to resettle in New Zealand.

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