It’s not a “people smuggling boat”



Tuesday morning our prime minister decided to tell a group of reporters that a “people smuggling boat” was heading on its way to our shores.

Well, it’s not a “people smuggling boat”.

It is a boat full of asylum seekers searching for protection from breaches of fundamental human rights.

As far as I can tell, this narrative has been completely unchallenged by a compliant media and jumps on an undertone of unhealthy xenophobia evident in the toxic debate in Australia.

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The reporting indicates that the boat was intercepted by Australian forces and pushed back to Indonesian waters. There is limited information around the allegedly 65 people on board, but there is reporting that this included a pregnant woman.

Indeed, the information is ridiculously thin. The suggestion by the prime minister that the boat was coming to New Zealand is speculative at best, and manipulative at worst. Regardless, his comments – that we worked through our “processes” – imply that we are complicit in pushing back to Indonesian waters a group of 65 individuals including a pregnant woman and her unborn child where they will be illegal and unable to access any substantive rights.

The release of the information is clearly targeted to justify this government’s overall punitive response to refugees and to create a platform for further negative and discriminatory language in the future. The PM is keen to create a climate of fear around asylum seekers and imply they create a “threat” to New Zealand, absent any real justification for such an inflammatory and entirely disproportionate response to reality.

Let’s take a moment to consider the wording here. It is important not to confuse “smuggling” with “trafficking”. The latter is without consent and involves exploitation. Smuggling, on the other hand, is a consensual process, although it can lead to exploitation. The reality of seeking asylum is that you are forced into the most risky of measures, and these individuals can facilitate that. Indeed, Oskar Schindler was a people smuggler.

The Refugee Convention acknowledges this reality. Article 31 of the Convention states that no one shall be penalised for illegal entry. The drafters of the Convention knew that asylum seekers would be forced to take such drastic measures.

None of this justifies the actions of the smugglers. They are taking advantage of the misery of the asylum seekers. Often, they do so with scant or no regard for their safety. This is only too evident in the Mediterranean.

The reality is that it is the policies of countries like New Zealand and Australia that have created the markets for the people smugglers. With no legal way to come to our “rights regarding” countries through our strict visa regimes and carrier sanctions (fines against airlines for allowing individuals on board who do not meet our immigration criteria), individuals are forced into these other measures.

If New Zealand and Australia were serious about combatting people smuggling, then they would commit to a genuine regional solution. This would involve tangible commitments to accepting more refugees from within the region and working with countries to mitigate the circumstances creating refugees. New Zealand could also assist in other ways through providing training and logistical support – we have excellent people here working on these issues and that knowledge could be shared.

Done right, this would build further bilateral and multilateral partnerships throughout the region. This has to be in our interests.

However, it seems that this government is not interested in all of the aspects of global citizenry. We are happy to talk trade, but not protection or respect for human rights. We are on the Security Council, yet we see no real independent advocacy as promised in the lead up to our election to that body.

At the least, we need our media to challenge the narrative. By adopting the terms used by our prime minister we only play into the choice to criminalize these people fleeing human rights abuse. A more appropriate response would be to question the prime minister on our lack of a commitment to a genuine regional solution. Right now, there is a crisis with the Rohingya, yet our government has been completely silent.

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Michael Timmins
Michael Timmins is an expert in international human rights law. Specialising in refugee rights, Michael has worked in Egypt, the United States, Australia, Thailand, Pakistan and his home country of New Zealand across roles in advocacy, academia, and government. He is also a member of the Child Poverty Action Group's Management Committee. Michael’s writing covers international human rights, counter-terrorism, international environmental law, rule of law and accountability issues, as well as anything interesting happening in international relations.


  1. It is nothing but an attempt to divert attention from the nasty things the government does.

    TVNZ managed to get some info on “Social Bonds” they plan to use as an “investment instrument” and “motivational instrument” for getting mentally ill persons into whatever kind of work, so they presented it as the top news item on last Sunday.

    That stirred up a lot of justified worry and anxiety amongst those who would be affected, it generated a wave of outrage by advocates, by the more caring stake-holders amongst NGO providers and also the public.

    The opposition MPs hammered the Minister for Health Jonathan Coleman with questions in question time for this, and at least some in the MSM are taking note.

    That is besides of other negative news, like the dairy sector heading into crisis, with low world market commodity prices, with farmers facing ruin, like the housing crisis in Auckland being out of control, so Nick Smith is doing media bus tours to appease questions and dissent. There will be more bad news to come, after another budget that did not balance.

    So with such news, as this, John Key has to come up with an old trick, to divert attention from what matters, to some fabricated “threat” from alleged “people smugglers”.

    It is highly unlikely that any refugees setting off in Burma, in Indonesia or so, will succeed and survive a long, difficult journey on small boats over dangerous seas to reach our shores. But never mind, a “threat” is always good to sell, to instil fear in the public’s mind.

    He did it with ISIS, screamed his head off in Parliament, to intimidate the opposition, when challenged about sending training troops to Iraq, he does it now with “boat people”, kind of.

    Shame on this government, shame on John Key, he is running out of tricks though, as fewer believe him now, the trickster and former bankster.

    This is what got him worried, the reaction to their agenda of slashing the numbers on benefits, no matter what the risk, all also done to offer “bounty” in profits to the “investors” that the government loves so much:

  2. The PM has a point – his mother was one and look at the undesirable results for New Zealand. Trust Key on this – people like him should never have been allowed in.

  3. Greed is good, we were told. Well, maybe. The entrepreneurs of the New Right, driven by a yearning for material wealth would draw us all up to (relative) success. Then we were reassured that it was okay to be only concerned about our own success. The people who were the losers in the economic shakedown were probably lazy, certainly bludgers. Anyway we were already planning to flick them another $25.00 in a year or so – they really had nothing to complain about. Stuff the rest of the country, anyway. I own my own home in Mt Roskill… what’s it worth today…wow!

    And now we learn that we come below 80th in the world per head of population in our uptake of refugees. John Key excuses this, saying if we even increased our acceptance to 1000 (as if 1000 would be at the extreme – Australia voluntarily takes 20,000 and we never tire of lambasting their wickedness on the subject) saying doing so would not solve the problem. (Hey – that’s why we do virtually nothing about climate change, too; let’s use it for not upping benefits to a reasonable level and for doing nothing about housing in Auckland…….)

    I grew up proud that New Zealand was a good international citizen. We put our troops at the disposal of UN peacekeeping. We spoke in favour of world peace and against nuclear proliferation. We all watched David Lange with swelling national pride. We (in the end) contributed to the ending of apartheid…..We will have to overlook a few murky moments: dawn raids, Vietnam, Cavaliers…but still we had much to be proud of.

    As we step up to chair the Security Council I am overwhelmed by shame. How will others see us now? A mean-spirited little country populated by selfish little people.

    And so they should. We all should hang our heads at the obscene, dismissive insensitivity of our popular, popular leader.

  4. If we let these boats in, it will only encourage more to come and with them thousands of dead at sea. You are right in that the only other way to combat this is to have legal channels to get into the country, but we can only let so many in.

  5. seriously look at the state of this guy, he’s off his trolley and people voted for this fool, how on god’s green earth are these people going to cross the Coral sea and then make it across the southern ocean in a crappy unseaworthy derelict fishing boat, deluded and dangerous, people have to wake up and see that he is not acting in the best interests of our country

  6. Key was probably reading from the same Crosby Textor list of prepared speeches that instructed Tony Abbot to make the nonsense claim that boat people were throwing their children overboard. The political right can’t say or do anything without first consulting their Crosby Textor mentors.

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