When our border agencies track down a bug-eyed insect pest or a drug mule or a brother full of illegal immigrants, they hail it as proof the system works. But insiders warn Jonathan Milne that we are just one egg-laden fruit fly away from disaster

The young man with the thick dark hair and heavy moustache looks anxious. His name is Ruben Monarrez and he's just arrived from Mexico with just a bag full of clothes.

As the 24-year-old leans in to answer the Customs officer's questions, the queue behind him fills the hall.

They have come from Australia, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, North America and Eastern Europe; they are the world. Only a line of booths and blue uniforms stand between them and New Zealand. And they all want to be on the other side of that line.

Our border agencies call it "the primary line", but it is not the first line of defence against smugglers and people-traffickers; it is the last. And in an initiative aimed at strengthening that line, Customs and biosecurity authorities are developing a high-tech Joint Border Management System to profile the 10 million travellers each year.


It will identify those who might be carrying a few grams of heroin or a few kilos of taro. In anticipation of the new software, the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) has already relaxed checks on "low-risk" passengers and cut frontline staff numbers by 90 - yet the computer system's developers are struggling to meet the first roll-out deadlines at the start of next year.

Primary Industries Minister David Carter confirmed on Friday that his ministry was recruiting 40 new quarantine officers and training 11 new sniffer dogs. And he posed for the TV cameras with five cute and photogenic Labradors, trained to sniff out meat, fruit and vegetables.

Such dogs are the only checks on the honesty of many inbound travellers now - and there's not enough of them. Last week at New Zealand airports, 53,000 Kiwis and Australians swiped their passports through an automated Customs "smartgate" and strolled towards the direct exit line.

As for Monarrez, the Customs officer hands back his passport and one-year working holiday visa, giving a slight nod. The young man tightens the white scarf around his neck and walks through into New Zealand. "I didn't bring anything except for clothes and hopes," he says. "Are you guys hiring?"

Some make a living, or a political career, by whipping up fear about immigration or smuggling. Others get indignant at being fined $400 for bringing in an apple in their hand luggage. So how worried should we be about border incursions? Here are some numbers:

* An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease would knock $6 billion off our GDP in the first year, according to MPI. Such outbreaks are common in some of our Asian trading partners.

* Lincoln University says the Psa virus will cost our kiwifruit growers up to $410 million over five years.

* A fruit-fly incursion could cost the country $1.5 billion and 8500 jobs. MPI's response to the lone male Queensland fruit fly trapped in the Auckland suburb of Avondale two months ago has already cost $1.35m, over and above the routine trapping programme.


* A New Zealand couple were arrested this year on a cruise liner in San Francisco, with $3m of cocaine bound for the streets of Auckland. Police say it would have had a "significant impact" on crime. Another $15m of cocaine allegedly slipped through Auckland and the Bay of Islands on the same liner, undetected by the drug dogs.

* Labour immigration spokeswoman Darien Fenton says we are increasingly susceptible to people-trafficking. Immigrants are made to work as unpaid kitchen-navvies or sex slaves by traffickers who hold their passports.

* NZ First leader Winston Peters claims the average working-age immigrant brings in a couple of dependents - children and aged relatives - who may rely on New Zealand for benefits.

A grim report on the impacts of climate change, published this week, warns that we need to be more vigilant about border security, as the disruption of international food supply chains and transnational migration combine to make the country increasingly vulnerable.

The report, Navigating an Uncertain Future, was written by Dr Rick Boven and two of his former colleagues at the New Zealand Institute think tank. Speaking from India, Boven says he is not following the lead of New Zealand's Got Talent judge Jason Kerrison and building a bunker for his family to protect them from the end of the world.
But he admits there's a somewhat apocalyptic tone to the report.

It recommends we invest more in biosecurity strategies such as protecting our forests, and calculate just how many people we can afford to feed as global warming batters our domestic and international food supplies.

"Countries seeking food supply and other resource security, such as China, and wealthy individuals seeking safe havens are already investing in New Zealand," the report says. "More people are likely to want to come to New Zealand, including returning citizens, raising the question of how many and who should be accepted."

Security may become far more important than we realise, the report says: "Contention for resources, spill-over consequences of environment events and failing states may create economic disruption, conflicts and migration flows that could threaten New Zealand's interests and security."

That may sound like doomsday but, in response, Immigration says its border control team is constantly developing screening and analysis tools for a "more challenging" immigration environment.

Primary Industries Minister David Carter agrees: "Climate change is going to add challenges, but frankly, I think you're going to have bigger challenges around the growth of the economy, trade volumes increasing, 10 million passengers coming across our border this year and that's going to increase. You've got to continually look at the border and be prepared to adjust and refine to make it better than it is today."

WE owe a great deal to workers on our borders. Take Peter Lim, whose language skills helped Immigration NZ bust a people-smuggling ring that was shipping Chinese nationals through Auckland to Buenos Aires, posing as Malaysian Chinese. His suspicions were first aroused a couple of months ago by some of the travellers' accents - they didn't sound Malaysian, he thought. Two groups - one of four, another of six - were stopped in transit in Auckland and turned back to Kuala Lumpur.

At the Immigration operations room next to Auckland International Airport's customs hall, Lim is again on the case. A brother and sister have booked tickets from Kuala Lumpur to Australia at short notice, and are travelling light. They claim they're visiting another sister, injured in a car crash and admitted to Whangarei Hospital.
Lim picks up the phone and dials the hospital. The siblings' story checks out, and they are allowed through.

Upstairs, forensics expert Kevin Browne checks the Taiwanese passports of two men, travelling together. One is older, well-dressed and speaks with a refined Mandarin accent. The other is young and scruffy, and sounds more like he comes from the rural eastern provinces of the People's Republic of China.

Under bright lights and a microscope, Browne has discovered that the younger man's passport is a fake, in the fictional name of Tsai-Cheng Ho. The passport's typeface is slightly wrong, and the forger has used the wrong screen-printing technology. The young Chinese man is turned back.

In both these cases, it was human sensitivity that gave rise to suspicions. The trouble is, people are being replaced by machines at our borders. Computer screening and analytics are replacing human nous and gut instinct.

The border agencies have been ordered by the Government to play the percentages.

Kiwi and Australian travellers are considered low-risk, so those with e-chip passports can walk through the smartgate without speaking to a customs officer, then pass through biosecurity without having their bags x-rayed. Soon, Customs plans to open up the smartgate to Americans and Britons as well.

Travellers arriving tired after a long-haul flight love the efficiency. Last year, Auckland International Airport was acclaimed for getting most Rugby World Cup travellers with nothing to declare from the customs hall to the taxi rank in just 25 minutes. Compare that with the three-hour queues at Heathrow as the Olympics loom.

Returning this week from a break in London and Paris, 18-year-old Auckland student Hannah Mirbach breezes through the smartgate - a refreshing change, she says, from the hour she spent queuing at Heathrow. So too Wellington's Alan Fisher, 38, who waltzes right through the smartgate and the direct exit line in just 15 minutes.

"Flying into New Zealand is always a joy," he says. "No queue, no wait, no militant border control staff."

He declares five jars of Marmite to the biosecurity officers, and is waved through. "I wouldn't like to see it any slacker. It never held things up that much when they scanned everyone. But a bit of sensible profiling and random checks on New Zealand passport holders is just as good, I reckon."

Perhaps. The trouble is, random audits of the direct exit line reveal that New Zealand and Australian passport holders are bringing in banned food, plants, medicines and more - and if they're not checked, they'll walk on through with them.

A few minutes after Fisher walks through, Kurt, a Tauranga bicycle mechanic, pushes his trolley down the corridor towards the exit door. He has been right through customs and the biosecurity x-ray and is just metres away from the door through to the terminal, when he is randomly sniffed by Watchman, the biosecurity beagle made famous by TV reality show Border Patrol.

Watchman sits. That means he's found something. Kurt has some beef jerky snacks that he's forgotten about in his bag.

"I would never try to bring anything to New Zealand that could harm the environment," protests Brazil-born Kurt. "I love this country and I'm sure that I have done more for this country than many Kiwis that born in here have done on their entire life."

Instead of a $400 fine, he is let off with a formal, written warning - mainly because a queue is building and the biosecurity officer can't find his arrivals card in the pile.

The audits show nearly 1 per cent of direct exit travellers are carrying something they shouldn't be. That may not sound a lot, but more than 2.1 million travellers have gone through the direct exit line since the start of last year - so there are nearly 18,000 people who could have carried through foot-and-mouth disease on their muddy tramping boots, or a fruit fly with the orange in their hand luggage.

Biosecurity officers have written anonymously to Labour's primary industries spokesman Damien O'Connor, alleging that is exactly how the Queensland fruit fly found in Avondale got across the border.

Peter Howell quit this year after 11 years as a frontline biosecurity officer in Auckland - and on resigning, he sent a letter to minister Carter warning of just such an incursion. He takes no pleasure in being proved right. "We all know there's no such thing as a single fruit fly," he says. "They spread like rabbits."

Carter agrees that border security is a combination of good people, clever dogs and smart computers - but he places most emphasis on the new technology.

"The big risk is not the airports [but] the sea ports around New Zealand," he says. "We can never provide a system that is absolutely foolproof. That's why the system has to be continually modified, continually improved. And the fact that we caught that Queensland fruit fly here in Auckland was a sign of the system working, not failing."

Rubén Monarrez checks into Queen St Backpackers. By 11 o'clock the next morning he has shaved off his moustache, bought a SIM card, opened a bank account - and he's ready to start looking for a job.

Without the dodgy-looking moustache, and with an enormous enthusiasm to work, he suddenly looks like an asset to this country. Maybe he'll get work in PR, maybe as a graphic designer, or maybe kitchen or front of house in a Mexican restaurant. "I won't be too picky," he promises.

He is just happy to receive such a friendly welcome. Arriving in US airports, he had to take off his shoes, remove his belt, and once in Chicago he was even ordered to remove his shirt while a queue of pudgy American travellers looked on curiously.

"Here, people ask you everything with a smile. I thought they would ask me a lot of questions, but they didn't. I thought the checks were pretty light. They didn't really search me - not that I have anything to hide."

New Zealand border authorities, it seems, know how to welcome our guests. The question is whether they know how to stop the unwelcome ones.

* If you find a dangerous pest, call MPI's emergency hotline on 0800 80 99 66. If you've got a job for Rubén Monarrez, email jonathan.milne@hos.co.nz.