Godzone: Plan B for People Smugglers

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JANUARY 28, 2002 | NO.3

New Zealand refugee advocate William Smith tells the story of the man who, fleeing conflict in his West African homeland, arrived in New Zealand illegally by plane and claimed asylum. When someone showed him where he was on a world map, recalls Smith, his shocked response was: "I've fallen off the edge of the earth."

Remoteness has long been New Zealand's best protection against the people-smuggling rings that have sent 13,489 passengers to Australia by boat since 1989. "It's the one time that I can say that our isolation is our comparative advantage," says New Zealand Immigration Minister Lianne Dalziel. But according to her Australian counterpart, Philip Ruddock, that deterrent is weakening. Intelligence reaching his office suggests that "a lot of the smugglers are now talking more about New Zealand than they are about Australia." That could be because of Australia's tough stance against boat people: asylum seekers are now detained outside the country, in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and no boats have arrived in Australia since two, with 146 people aboard, were turned back to Indonesia in December. The granting of refugee status to all but one of the 131 Australia-bound boat people New Zealand has taken in (who are included in its annual intake of 750 refugees) might also encourage smugglers, Ruddock said last week.

But Dalziel says her government, which had already planned to increase penalties for people smuggling, sees no reason to brace for an onslaught: "There is always advice that people smugglers are talking about different destinations, and New Zealand has never been exempt from that."

Illegal immigrants prefer to enter New Zealand by air: the country's largest single load of boat people so far was a group of 13 stowaways, who arrived in 1998. Unless smugglers get their hands on boats capable of the longer trip, says Australian National University immigration expert James Jupp, "I think the Kiwis can rest easy behind their thousand miles of ocean."

But smugglers are resourceful-and greedy-enough to overcome that barrier, says the Australian government. And asylum seekers are desperate enough to risk a more dangerous trip, says Smith, who is secretary of the Auckland Refugee Council: "Whatever barriers a country like ours puts up, human ingenuity will find a way around them."

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