Reports of a recent rise in the risk of “boat people” coming to New Zealand following the Government’s stance on the treatment of Manus Island refugees are not backed up by any new intelligence, a senior MFAT official says.
Government and Opposition MPs sparred with officials and each other during a fiery select committee briefing about the closed detention centre on the Papua New Guinea island.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern created a stir during her trip to Asia by speaking out about conditions facing refugees on Manus Island, saying she saw “the human face” of the conditions facing those at the shuttered detention centre and reiterating New Zealand’s 2013 offer to take up to 150 refugees.
Following Ardern’s comments, Australian media cited “genuine fears within intelligence communities” that New Zealand’s stance could prove an incentive for more people smugglers to make the trip, reporting that four boats heading to New Zealand had been turned back by Australian border security.
Speaking to the foreign affairs, defence and trade committee on Thursday, Mfat’s deputy secretary for Australia, Jeff Langley, was grilled by National MP Mark Mitchell about whether the new government’s stance on Manus Island had increased the risk of people smugglers making the trip to New Zealand.
“I feel pretty strongly about the fact that with the language and discussions over the last few months, we’ve actually increased our own risk as a country…that we’ve become seen as a more favourable destination to these people smugglers.”
However, Langley said Mfat was not aware of any intelligence suggesting increased interest in New Zealand as a destination, although there had always been “chatter” about the issue.
“I don’t think at this point that the recent renewal and reaffirmation of the offer has changed the [risk] profile.”
It was possible New Zealand intelligence agencies could have made briefings of their own about the issue, although he was not sure.
Langley believed Australian media reports about the four boats intercepted en route to New Zealand were based on historical information rather than any recent events.
New Zealand and Australia had worked closely for a long time on issues like people smuggling, he said.
Langley was unaware of any specific information to back up an assertion by Australian immigration minister Peter Dutton that Manus refugees were now choosing New Zealand as destination over the United States, the country the Australian government is focussing its efforts on.
National MPs pressed Langley on the quality of information Mfat was providing to the committee, with Simon Bridges asking at one point, “With the risk of being rude, why are you here?”
There were also exchanges between National and Labour MPs on the quality of potential refugees that New Zealand could accept, and any increased risk of people smuggling.