Editorial: Asylum seekers not a special case

The 87 Tamil asylum seekers detained in Indonesia as they attempted the 7000-kilometre voyage to New Zealand no doubt have compelling reasons to want to come here.

There are, however, equally compelling reasons for the Government refusing their demands.

Prime Minister John Key's dismissal of the group as "not welcome" might have been too strong for some, but it applied to people smugglers and queue-jumpers, not refugees in general. As such, it sends a clear message that this country is not a soft touch for the vile trade of human trafficking. With people smugglers likely to step up efforts to get to our shores after Australia negotiates a refugee-processing centre in Malaysia, it comes at a crucial time.

New Zealand does what it can to help the millions forced to flee their homes by war, persecution and famine, and more than pulls its weight by international comparisons. But as a small nation, it has limited means. It must ensure that what assistance it can provide goes to those most in need.

The best and fairest way to achieve that is through the long-established United Nations system for determining refugee claims and allocating countries for resettlement. Under that system, New Zealand accepts 750 refugees a year, though it will take only 527 this year because of the impact of the Christchurch earthquake.

Had the 87 Tamils on the Alicia made it to New Zealand's territorial waters, this country would have been obliged to process their refugee claims here. The boat's detention in Indonesian waters means passengers must be processed in that country; they should disembark now and enter the system as soon as possible.

Instead, they are insisting they be brought to New Zealand and allowed to settle here. That is a demand that no government can ever accede to.

The Tamils claim they face mistreatment if they are returned to Sri Lanka, though it is worth noting that at least some of them have reportedly been living in Malaysia for the past two years. The prospect of persecution is backed by Amnesty International, which has concerns about the fate of the minority group more than two years after the Tamil Tigers' insurgency was crushed. There is a big difference, however, between properly considering refugee claims and allowing those making them to demand where they are resettled.

Of course, if the Alicia Tamils are found to be genuine refugees, they should be found a haven. Some might eventually end up in New Zealand.

But the utmost care must be taken when dealing with people who have paid for passage on a boat via a third-party country, as this group has. Granting their request to be allowed to continue to New Zealand would only reward and encourage people smugglers, who prey on the desperate and vulnerable with little regard for their safety or future wellbeing. Above all else, it would allow them to jump the queue. There are an estimated 44 million refugees in the world, and no doubt many would love the chance to settle in a peaceful and prosperous nation such as New Zealand. It can take only a tiny fraction of them. Why is this group more deserving?

The Dominion Post