National says it's time to get tough with asylum seekers, to keep the boats at bay... Even though no boat has reached New Zealand. Ever
Immigration Minister Nathan Guy says a mass arrival of asylum seekers is "a real risk", while earlier this year John Key used the word "floodgate" when talking about boat people reaching our shores. In a matter of weeks the government will act on this concern, introducing a tough new law to deter asylum seekers from heading our way; to stop us looking like "a soft touch". Sounds like we should be worried, right?
Weeellll. The facts seem somewhat at odds with the "risk" language being deployed.
You change laws to fix or anticipate problems. And some of the bill's changes are sensible moves around preparedness. But at the heart of this law change is the introduction of six months detention for any asylum seeker -- man, woman or child -- who arrives in a group of ten or more. So the problem being anticipated is a mass arrival by boat.
The government's rationale? That such an arrival is inevitable. John Key has repeatedly referred to intelligence briefings he's received saying as much. Nathan Guy today revealed on Q+A that six vessels heading for New Zealand have been stopped by foreign authorities in the past ten years.
How many of those have actually made it to New Zealand? None.
How many boatloads in the ten years before that? None.
How many ever? Er, none.
The closest a boatload of asylum seekers has ever got to us is Australia. Now facetiously you might say one glimpse of the better wages, weather and shopping in Australia and they'll choose to stay put. Heck, half of New Zealand's heading across the Tasman, so why would a bunch of refugees on some rickety old boat come the other way?
You might also say that if they can sail the Tasman we should welcome them with open arms and rush them straight into our Olympics squad!
Joking aside though, it puts the risk in perspective. For a start, the Tasman Sea is a vast moat. The rough conditions that have deterred every boat thus far aren't about to disappear. These are ghost ships the government's trying to stop.
But perhaps the government's fretting because already the number of asylum seekers is on the rise? Again, no. Those arriving by plane have halved since 9/11, many getting picked up by the strict airport security these days. We had just 303 last year and the minister acknowledges those numbers are "relatively stable".
So it's not like we're a popular target. At all. Heck, one of the submissions on the bill came from a former Tampa refugee. He said he'd never heard of New Zealand before he came here and "creating detention centres ... is just telling people-smugglers that we exist".
Maybe we need to detain first and ask questions later because the current system of letting asylum seekers wait out the process in the community is causing troubles? Crime? Violence? Terrorism? Nope.
But we must be seen as a soft touch then, right? I don't see how. Of the 300 or so asylum seekers per year attempting to enter New Zealand, fewer than a third have been accepted.
So we come back to the government's argument that it's only a matter of time. They're coming. Don't mind that they never have, that actual numbers are dropping, and that those who come cause us no real problems... let's just suppose the boats are queueing up in Jakarta with "New Zealand or bust" painted on the side. No-one wants people to get on a dodgy boat and risk the voyage, but is this bill going to deter them?
According to the International Detention Coalition, no. It says:
"Detention fails to impact on the choice of destination country and does not reduce numbers of irregular arrivals. Studies have shown asylum seekers and irregular migrants either are:
- Not aware of detention policy or its impact in the country of destination
- May see it as an inevitable part of the journey, and
- Do not convey the deterrence message to other back to those in country of origin."
What's more, research suggests that the cost to the taxpayer of detention is around 80% higher than letting the asylum seekers live in the community while they're processed, often supported by their ethnic communities. So more punitive also means more expensive for us all.
And let's consider who these people are. Happily, I don't think anyone's suggesting they're terrorists. Some, however, will be those with a bit of money trying for a better life in another country without going through the proper immigration applications. But we are sorting those out under the current system and, as noted, many are being turned away.
Do we really want to just lock them all up on arrival, children included (even if that detention is only at the Mangere refugee centre)? Is that really the Kiwi way?
A group of prominent New Zealanders including Oscar Kightley and Dave Dobbyn are speaking out against the bill, using the line 'We are better than that".
As usual with this kind of bill and this kind of coalition government, it'll be down to ACT, United Future and the Maori Party to decide whether we are better than that. Or not.