Rowan Callick, Asia-Pacific editor
July 08, 2010 12:00AM
THE “regional solution” to asylum-seekers proposed by Julia Gillard has sparked a political debate in New Zealand.
Opposition Leader Phil Goff yesterday questioned the value of establishing a processing centre in East Timor. “Why we should load this problem on to them; I just can’t understand,” he said.
Mr Goff said that East Timor was already dealing with the problem of 100,000 internally displaced people.
Mr Goff, who was foreign affairs then defence minister for a combined nine years in the former Labour government, said there was only “an outside chance” of asylum-seekers trying to reach New Zealand by boat.
He told Radio New Zealand: “I’ve read the intelligence reports for nine years on this — you can’t absolutely rule out the prospects of a boat reaching New Zealand, but overwhelmingly, we know the people-smugglers are interested in Australia as a destination.
“If you look at the 75 boats that have been intercepted so far this year, they’ve all been off the coast of Western Australia.”
Mr Goff, demonstrating that Labour parties either side of the Tasman are not always aligned on key policies, said that East Timor did not need to be saddled with more problems.
He urged New Zealand to stay out of the “intensely political” pre-election debate in Australia. “That is very rarely an environment in which good decisions will be made for the long-term future,” he said.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, who provisionally endorsed the idea in a conversation with Ms Gillard on the issue, said: “I have been warning New Zealanders for quite some time that these boats are becoming larger and therefore more capable of coming (here). When one of the ships nearly came to New Zealand last year, we sent them a very black and white message that they weren’t welcome here.”
He said that a processing centre that rewarded refugees who sought asylum legally would “basically put the kybosh” on those who would come illegally. But the discussion was only just starting.
Those identified there as illegal immigrants would, Mr Key said, “have to be rejected, and they would have to be sent somewhere — quite where, I don’t know.”
He stressed: “We reserve the right to determine who comes to New Zealand and who doesn’t come.”
Under the Howard government’s Pacific Solution, New Zealand — under Mr Key’s predecessor, Labour prime minister Helen Clark — received hundreds of asylum-seekers who were heading by boat to Australia, and were found to be genuine refugees.
Of the 438 asylum-seekers on the Tampa who were taken to Nauru for processing, 189 were eventually accepted by New Zealand.
NZ refugee council slams E Timor centre
July 8, 2010 – 2:19PM
New Zealand should steer clear of backing Australia’s proposed regional processing centre for asylum seekers, the nation’s refugee council says.
The New Zealand Refugee Council (NZRC) said Australia had different “asylum issues which are presently bound up in domestic politics related to their own upcoming elections”.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Tuesday announced her intention to crack down on people smugglers who send asylum seekers to Australia and proposed a regional processing centre in East Timor.
The NZRC said it didn’t think this would be an ideal solution given the “appalling conditions in existing Australian asylum detention centres”.
“No New Zealand taxpayer funding should be applied to supporting a regional transitional camp in East Timor,” a statement from the council said.
“It is illegal and unethical to place asylum seekers in detention of a third-party country.”
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key confirmed Ms Gillard had spoken to him about supporting the initiative.
He said people smuggling was a realistic threat to New Zealand in the future and while a regional solution made sense, further discussions were needed.
The NZRC backed the New Zealand government’s opinion that it was unrealistic to think New Zealand might be targeted by boat people, considering its isolation.