3 Jun 2015

Boat people: a political bogeyman?

6:05 am on 3 June 2015

The Prime Minister has been accused of scaremongering after he warned that refugees could now reach New Zealand on boats.

Fishermen help rescue a boat of Rohingya migrants off the coast of Indonesia's East Aceh on 20 May 2015.

Thousands of migrants, mostly Bangladeshi or Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, have arrived in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand since the beginning of May. Photo: AFP

Since at least 2010, Prime Minister John Key has been warning that the risk of refugees arriving by boat is increasing.

This week, he said advice had confirmed a 65 people from Sri Lanka and Bangladesh on a boat recently intercepted by the Australian navy off eastern Indonesia had been heading to this country.

Mr Key said people smugglers were now using steel-hulled ships capable of getting to New Zealand and Australian authorities recently intercepted one on its way.

"It was destined for New Zealand - there's no question about that, not in the mind of my officials anyway.

"The clear view is they were coming to New Zealand. Could they have come here? It's a very long way...

"The advice we had is that it was a seaworthy boat, quite capable of doing that," the Prime Minister said.

Vice-president of the Refugee Council Colin Henry said that claim was hard to swallow.

"Those on the last ship, I have heard, although I don't know how true it is, that they said they were going to New Zealand.

"Of course, one can say anything, but how feasible is it? You and I can say we're going off to the moon on some rocket, but how feasible is it for us to get there, that's the real issue.

"We at the Refugee Council still think that's a long way off," he said.

Mr Henry said the Government would be better off doing more to help the refugees fleeing Myanmar.

Labour leader Andrew Little said the chances of refugees making it to New Zealand in boats were zero.

He said Mr Key was simply trying to distract the public.

"This looks like National Party standard distraction material, to raise some sort of bogey that he thinks is going to be there and will get people excited," Mr Little said.

"And divert attention from things like falling dairy prices, a lower national income - the sort of issues that are exercising a lot of people at the moment."

Green Party immigration spokesperson Denise Roche agreed that the Government was inventing a bogeyman.

"I do worry that there's a beat-up that consistently comes from this Government about potential refugees and asylum seekers who use boats to get here.

"This was witnessed in the Immigration Bill that they introduced last year, which breached a whole bunch of human rights, I have to say," she said.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters also thought the arrival of asylum seekers improbable.

"Extraordinarily unlikely, most improbable - but it cannot be ruled out," Mr Peters said. "However, if people are thinking of launching off from Indonesia and similar parts they will not be doing so if they know that we're not a soft touch."

Mr Peters said New Zealand could look at increasing its refugee quota from 750 people a year to 1000, but said that could not be done while immigration was at its current level.