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New Zealand's 'boat people' offer criticised

Last updated 08:51 11/02/2013

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The Government has come under fire from several quarters for its offer to take 150 asylum seekers from Australia.

Prime Minister John Key confirmed the offer during talks with Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard in Queenstown at the weekend.

Immigration consultant and former immigration minister Aussie Malcolm said this morning it was a tragedy that New Zealand was buying into the mass-detention of women and children, practiced in Australia, and into the rhetoric about queue jumpers which was "populist jargon".

It would harm New Zealand's reputation.

"We have left the community of European nations and responsible nations around the world and joined a minority of one," he said.

Malcolm said the real problem was the failure of Indonesia and Malaysia to manage refugees in their own countries.

Race Relations Conciliator Joris de Bres said the move, which would be counted as part of New Zealand's existing commitment to take 750 refugees a year, was a nil-cost decision because it did not increase the quota.

But it would have been a more generous gesture to offer extra places on top of the 750.

Labour's Darien Fenton joined the attacks, saying the Government had its own law change in train as part of the Immigration Amendment Bill that would allow for the mass-detention of a group of 10 or more asylum seekers who arrive in a group by boat.

"Just last year the Prime Minister John Key and his Immigration Minister, Nathan Guy, were describing asylum seekers who arrived by boat as 'queue jumpers' and 'illegal immigrants'," Fenton said.

"Now, however, it seems Mr Key is prepared to take a number of the very same people - from recently reopened Australian detention centres on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island and Nauru - that he has previously disparaged."

But Key this morning defended the decision, saying it was a case of "helping out our mates" in Australia.

They were putting a lot of time and effort into stopping boats from coming and New Zealand wanted them to continue to do that "at no charge".

He said the move needed to be put into perspective.

"We are not taking more people," Key said.

Australia took 2000 refugees a year and New Zealand took 750 under its UNHCR quota.

The annual talks between the two prime ministers also agreed to bring down mobile phone roaming rates through new powers for consumer watchdogs.

Australia will also trial fast-track automated technology for departures from Australian airports with the aim of achieving "domestic-like" travel between the two countries.

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Australia confirmed its support for New Zealand's bid for United Nations Security Council membership in 2015-16, and joint funding over the next two years to support the development of a potential vaccine for rheumatic fever.

Officials will look at a mutual student-debt recovery scheme that would help New Zealand recover up to $600 million in debt owed by students living across the Tasman. Australians here owe about $20m, Key said.

But Gillard offered no public concessions on the rules for the estimated 100,000 Kiwis in Australia who are not covered by a welfare safety net.

Internal Australian immigration documents have revealed a proposed pathway that would allow New Zealanders to gain residency after eight years or more.

But senior sources suggested New Zealand had decided to soft-pedal on the issue in an election year for Gillard.

- Stuff

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