More than once, the Prime Minister has warned that, at some time, a boatload of desperate people will wash up on our shores. More than once, refugees claiming to be attempting to do just that have failed miserably. Three years ago, a small group of Chinese nationals who said their intended destination was New Zealand made it as far as Darwin. Now, a far larger group who are said to have had the same ambition are being held in a detention centre in West Timor after their boat hit rocks off a remote Indonesian island.

The 65 asylum seekers, mainly Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis, have circulated photographs and a letter pleading for help from the New Zealand Government.

There is nothing about this episode that should spook New Zealanders. Despite John Key's pronouncements, there is very little to suggest boatloads of asylum seekers are about to descend on this country. It would take a remarkable feat of seamanship to reach here.

The small boats they use can usually handle the placid seas of the tropics but would not last long in the heavy swells to the north of New Zealand. Last week, Mr Key said the latest asylum seekers had a credible chance of making this country. In fact, they ended up shipwrecked after being intercepted by the Australian Navy.


Despite the abject failure of the asylum seekers' venture, their subsequent plea to the Government has the potential to be a sizeable embarrassment. Not because of the strength of their case. In a world of some 52 million refugees, a number not seen since the end of World War II, their acceptance would represent a case of queue-jumping based purely on proximity. What their plight should focus attention on, however, is the paltry number of refugees that New Zealand accepts from United Nations waiting lists each year.

Next month, this country assumes the presidency of the UN Security Council. As such, it should be setting an example to the international community, not least on humanitarian issues. Yet on a per capita basis, New Zealand ranks 87th in the world for refugee resettlement. Its annual quota of 750 refugees has not changed since 1987.

This state of affairs has endured despite a generally favourable experience with refugees, most of whom have worked hard to contribute to the country that took them in.

The Labour Party, the Greens, New Zealand First, Act and United Future all want to increase the quota to some extent. Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy agrees, and Amnesty International last week called on the Government to increase it to 1500 people.

That is surely manageable. Yet Mr Key refuses to relent, and continues to talk up the idea that boat people are lurking just over the horizon.

The fate of the asylum seekers now in West Timor illustrates the implausibility of the picture he paints. In no way should it distract from the issue of this country's pitiful refugee quota. At a time of worldwide crisis, New Zealand must do much more if it wants to be recognised as a fully participating member of the international community.