This country enjoyed a warm glow early in the life of the previous Government when it relieved Australia of some of the so-called Tampa refugees.

Green MP Keith Locke believes we should do it again, this time for asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka who have been picked up by an Australian customs vessel and returned to Indonesia, where they are refusing to disembark.

This country needs to be careful as well as compassionate.

It must do nothing to undermine Australia's legitimate efforts to control its borders. With a vast, empty coast facing Asia and the Indian Ocean, Australians naturally harbour a deep-seated fear of mass illegal immigration by sea.

The Howard Government's refusal to admit the boat-people to the Australian mainland, keeping them encamped in Nauru, Papua New Guinea or Christmas Island, may have seemed hard-hearted in New Zealand but across the Tasman it won John Howard more friends than enemies.

So much so that he was accused of exploiting his hard line for election gains. Be that as it may, Mr Howard can now point to a measure of success in stemming the flow of sea-borne asylum- seekers during his period in power.

And for all that the Australian Labor Party criticised him at the time, the Rudd Government is doing much the same. It has shut the Nauru and PNG camps but increased air and sea patrols and maintained arrangements that deny refugee appeal rights to those held on Christmas Island.

The public, however, believes Mr Rudd has softened the line and blames him for a recent resurgence in numbers of boat-people trying to make landfall in Australia.

Two polls published this week returned adverse verdicts on his border security. Perception is probably a bigger problem than the reality. Australia accepts 13,500 refugees a year. More than 95 per cent arrive by plane.

The number intercepted at sea over the past year is about 1800. Almost 700 of them have been stopped in the past six weeks. Most come from Afghanistan, Iraq and, more recently, Sri Lanka. Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka since their defeat in that country's long civil war have created a new wave of need.

The 78 who are refusing to leave the Australian customs patrol ship Oceanic Viking in the West Java port of Merak have created an incident that dramatises both the plight of the Tamils and the Australian Government's dilemma.

New Zealand should not take any of the 78 except at Canberra's request. There is a welcome and well-established Tamil immigrant community in this country and extra numbers could easily be absorbed, but orderly procedure is important.

The Australian Foreign Minister has been in Sri Lanka this week trying to discourage Tamils from fleeing to Indonesia in the belief they can slip across to Australia by boat.

Meanwhile, Indonesia has set a deadline of Friday for the Oceanic Viking to depart. Churches and trade unions are calling for the 78 to be allowed into Australia so their need for asylum can be properly assessed.

But the Rudd Government's reluctance can be understood. It is one thing to assess an asylum-seeker who arrives on a commercial aircraft and send him away back on the next plane if his claim fails; it is a different thing entirely to bring the people in on Australian ships or aircraft and preserve the option not to let them stay.

New Zealand should make known its willingness to help, as it did in the Tampa incident, but not too loudly. There is no credit in displays of compassion from a position of comfort.

Asylum- seekers and the agents who prey on them must not imagine that a bid for illegal entry to Australia will result, at worst, in admission to New Zealand. The lucky few admitted from the Tampa did not interfere with the Howard Government's clear message. The same care would be needed again.