WELLINGTON, New Zealand – New Zealand may be one of the most geographically isolated nations on Earth, but its leaders say the country is not immune to the risks of refugees arriving by boat.
No boats carrying asylum seekers have ever completed the daunting and treacherous sea voyage to New Zealand, although several have tried — including an ill-equipped fishing vessel carrying 10 Chinese refugees that last month reached the Australian port of Darwin before running out of fuel. Those refugees are now seeking asylum in Australia, a far more common destination for desperate people fleeing war-torn or impoverished nations.
But even the few attempts have prompted New Zealand to draft tough measures against any boat refugees who do arrive. Adopting a model similar to Australia's, where the issue has become divisive, New Zealand's ruling National Party announced proposed laws Monday that among other steps, would allow holding boat refugees in mass detention centers for up to six months.
"We want to send a clear message to potential people-smugglers that we are not an easy target," said Prime Minister John Key at a news conference, echoing some of the rhetoric used by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
And on Tuesday, officials from 17 agencies such as immigration and education launched an eight-week training exercise simulating a mass arrival of refugees. The launch coincided with a visit to the country by Janet Napolitano, the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security.
"The recent events in Darwin show that New Zealand is a target for dangerous and illegal mass arrivals by boat," said Immigration Minister Nathan Guy in a statement. "We need to be prepared."
But the plans are already running into criticism.
Darien Fenton, the immigration spokeswoman for the opposition Labour Party, said the chances of any boat making it to New Zealand were "so remote as to be laughable" and that the National Party was using the announcement to divert attention from more pressing issues.
"The New Zealand public will support it, because it sounds good," Fenton said in an interview. "But we need to learn some lessons from Australia, and the divisiveness of their detention-center approach."
Fenton said she believes New Zealand's borders need securing but thinks any refugees should be dealt with on an individual basis rather than in mass detention centers.
Those sentiments were echoed by professor Max Abbott, a refugee expert at the Auckland University of Technology, who said the new measures would damage New Zealand's positive international reputation for dealing with refugee and humanitarian issues.
"The Australian treatment of 'boat people' through mass detention under harsh conditions has tarnished that country's reputation and been an embarrassment to fair-minded Australians," said Abbott in a statement.
The new measures would allow New Zealand authorities to detain large groups of boat refugees under a single warrant for up to six months. Current New Zealand law treats each refugee individually, with many allowed to go free while awaiting the outcome of their cases.
The new measures would also add more steps and time before boat refugees were granted residency, and allow them to bring only immediate family — not extended family members — into the country if they were accepted as residents.
The dangers of making the journey to the South Pacific were highlighted in December when a fishing boat headed for Australia and overloaded with refugees from the Middle East capsized off Indonesia, killing 200 people.
Depending on the size and speed of the boat, a journey to New Zealand could last days or weeks longer. But Guy, the immigration minister, said a group of nearly 500 Sri Lankan Tamils successfully reached Canada in 2010 after a four-month voyage, demonstrating that such long trips were increasingly possible with more sophisticated operators and advanced boats.
If New Zealand passes the new measures and essentially matches Australia's approach, it is likely to push the problem back onto Australia because New Zealand's larger neighbor is a closer destination for refugees.
Ian Rintoul, a spokesman with the Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney, said in an interview with the AP that the reason why the eight adults and two children from China had attempted the voyage to New Zealand was because they thought they'd receive a "more independent and fair hearing" than they would in Australia, where they feared they'd be detained indefinitely.
He said the Chinese group set out from Malaysia, where they had been attempting to gain official U.N. recognition as refugees, and sailed 27 days before running out of fuel and anchoring in Darwin. He said the group is now being held at a detention center in Sydney, and remains hopeful of gaining official refugee status in Australia.
Under a U.N. program, New Zealand accepts up to 750 refugees a year, a relatively modest number even given the country's small population of 4.4 million people. Figures provided by immigration authorities show that an additional 80 or so asylum seekers arriving by plane are also accepted into the country each year, while another three or four times that number are typically turned away.
The National Party hopes Parliament will pass the proposed laws and put them into effect by the end of this year. The laws would apply only to refugee groups of more than 10 people.
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