Keith Locke: Checking arrivals a job for Immigration, not politicians

Winston Peters' Perspectives article failed to provide any evidence of a terrorist threat to New Zealand. No one has suggested that the Iraqis he has named are likely to detonate any bombs. None of them came here dishonestly, and there are arguments for and against each of them staying.

The new Iraqi Government is grappling with what to do with former members of Saddam Hussein's regime. Though some are going to be put on trial, most have been re-employed by the new administration. These include diplomats like Zohair Mohammad al-Omar, who is here visiting his son, a New Zealand citizen. We should take a lead from the Iraqi authorities. The fact that al-Omar has a clearance from the new Government in Baghdad counts in his favour but it doesn't necessarily mean he should receive residence, a decision that should be left to the Immigration Service.

Politicians like Peters or myself should not be determining the fate of people like al-Omar. We have political agendas. New Zealand First picks up votes from those afraid of foreigners, while the Greens poll well among those who celebrate ethnic diversity.

It is not surprising that Peters and I differ as to whether al-Omar, or Ahmed Zaoui, should be given a chance to stay here. Clearly, applications to come to New Zealand should not be processed by politicians but by objective specialist bodies.

It is important to make a distinction between visitors and those who apply for residence. It would be counterproductive to subject hundreds of thousands of tourists to thorough immigration-style checks - they would only get upset and take their holidays somewhere else. Tourists are avoiding America in droves because of their overly intrusive checking and delays for visas. International conference organisers are also giving the United States a miss because they cannot guarantee that intending delegates will get their paperwork on time.

Unfortunately this is already a problem in New Zealand. Last year the Quakers hosted an international gathering in Auckland and several delegates did not arrive, or were late, because of long visa delays at our missions in New Delhi and Pretoria.

Now, panicked by Peters, the Government is trawling back through hundreds of thousands of visa approvals from 54 allegedly high-risk countries. Which countries are "high risk"? Sorry, the Government won't tell you. When I asked for the list, I was refused on security grounds.

This type of secrecy is making migrants already here nervous. They don't know whether their communities are being targeted and they are worried that the extra suspicion will foster more racial prejudice.

The Government should be more open about what it is doing. It should also keep calm and not rush to create a new category of "undesirable" visitors. This could be quite dangerous to free speech. A vague category of "undesirable" could be used to exclude people on the basis on their political views, rather than whether they have done anything criminal.

Of course, anyone wanting to stay on here is already subject to more stringent checks than a visitor. People applying for residence or citizenship already have to pass a "good character" test.

There is certainly no need for any precipitate action. New Zealand is a lucky country as regards terrorism or illegal migration. No terrorist has shown an interest in New Zealand and we don't get boat people because the sea journey is too long. Rightly or wrongly, asylum-seekers are finding it very difficult to get on a plane to New Zealand. Immigration Minister Paul Swain told Parliament that asylum-seeker claims at the border had declined from 2627 in 1997-98 to 277 in the year to February.

There is no evidence to support Peters' assertion that other nations are withholding information from us about dangerous migrants. There is no need to panic in the face of his accusations. His claims that New Zealand is a "soft touch" and has a security problem fall over in the light of the facts.

* Green MP Keith Locke is responding to New Zealand First leader Winston Peters who says this country will continue to be regarded as a soft touch by terrorists if the Government does not take security seriously.

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