Herald on Sunday editorial: Shortcuts to asylum are costly

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Photo / Graeme Gibbons
Photo / Graeme Gibbons

Critics of the hard line the Government has adopted towards "boat people" must have been dismayed when an overcrowded fishing boat was brought ashore north of Perth this week, its 66 passengers displaying a sign that read, "We want to go to New Zealand".

Well to the south of usual sea routes, the vessel from Sri Lanka appeared to be on course to round the southwest corner of Australia and come this way. Those who say our Government has been exaggerating the possibility of asylum seekers reaching New Zealand by sea had not allowed for this route.

It remains doubtful that sailing south of Australia would be more likely to succeed. The winds and currents might be more favourable for reaching New Zealand but southern ocean swells would seem even more daunting than the northern route into the Tasman Sea.

The disturbing element of the seizure of a boat 400km north of Perth is that it must have been seriously heading for this country. If its banner was for show to Australian authorities, the boat could have chosen an easier approach to Australia in tropical water.

If asylum seekers ever do reach this country by boat they will be sent to Australia's offshore detention centres under an agreement reached between Prime Ministers John Key and Julia Gillard. In return, New Zealand will accept 150 detainees a year as part of its refugee resettlement quota.

This is not an ideal solution from New Zealand's point of view and this week's asylum bid does not make it any more acceptable. The proper response to boat people is to take them to the nearest available United Nations refuge.

The UN High Commission for Refugees operates a fair and orderly system of asylum. People fearing for their lives amid civil unrest in their country are given shelter while their case is assessed. Anyone who tries to jump this queue, by aircraft or boat, should not be able to succeed.

No matter how genuine a queue-jumper's case may be, the action is unfair to those waiting their turn. Their plight might be no less desperate than someone who attempts to crash the borders of a safe country.

Individuals arriving by plane can be put on the next return flight; seaborne refugees are a different prospect. They have quite likely been smuggled to the coast by the boat owner who has been paid, no doubt handsomely, for the illegal service. To allow people to stay when they arrive this way encourages a criminal and dangerous trade.

To accept Australia's detainees, as Key has agreed to do, is not much better. The admission of 150 a year is 150 fewer places for those who have been through the procedures of the UNHCR. New Zealand has been accepting 750 UN-approved refugees a year - a paltry number without reducing it to 600 for the sake of boat people. At the very least, this country could increase its overall refugee quota by making its Australian deal additional to its UN commitment. Australia's annual intake of UN refugees is five times ours, on a per capita basis.

It would be better to bypass Australia's harsh offshore camps. Australia may be in need of that deterrent; New Zealand is not. If any boatload of queue jumpers ever make it this far they should be taken to a UN facility in Southeast Asia, there to await their turn as others do.

We can take more refugees - but not by this turbulent route.

- Herald on Sunday

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