We really need to decide what we want to do about refugees/immigrants, rather than making cheap points about every incident that occurs. This applies to political activists and the major media (not that there is a clear distinction between the two).
The first question concerns whether we wish to control the process or whether we are content to just let it happen. Whatever, the history, or the particular claims, that individuals might present with, it seems to me that we would want to control the process, both in regards to numbers and individual characteristics. This cannot be done if we simply wait until the persons concerned turn up on our shores, or appear in distress in our coastal waters (or even somewhere in our exclusive economic zone).
In this case, we will find (as others have in relation to their coastal waters) that our options are constrained by legal and moral pressures, which will only intensify as the people smugglers and their customers perceive increasing success. We only have to look at what is happening in the Mediterranean to see where this policy (or lack, thereof) ends. Does anyone doubt that it presents enormous problems to the European states, whatever sympathy their people or their governments might have with the plight of the arriving refugees?
Australia has tried on-shore processing, off-shore processing and, most recently, pro-active interception which envisages a speedy return with no processing at all. They have clearly come to the view that only the latter fits their needs. The policy has been much criticised; especially when, as recently, it apparently extended to financial inducements to the people-traffickers themselves. Clearly, there is a danger here. One would not wish to further encourage the activity. On the other hand, if it were cost-effective to the Australian authorities, it might be a worthwhile addition to the armoury. That would be especially so if it were also to reduce the risk to the refugees. Like everything else in this fraught situation, making a moral or prudential judgement requires a careful evaluation of the non-moral facts of the case. Again in relation to Australian policy, we might speculate whether the Australian Labour opposition will be willing to go to the next election on a policy to end all this and revert to open slather.
We need to work out what we want to do. I suggest that we adopt the Australian policy (with or without the payment element). Indeed, I think we should plan to cooperate with Australia in a joint effort at early interception. It may be that such a commitment would put pressure on our very limited defence assets but it seems to me that this activity is just as important for our small frigate force, as the interception of pirates/drug smugglers, off the coast of South Africa, as they are presently doing. Such a commitment would obviously also have serious implications for the current defence review, presently.
Taken together with the ongoing requirement to safeguard our interests in our exclusive economic zone (the fourth largest in the world) this might suggest that a two-frigate navy is inadequate. Indeed, at the time that the decision to build the ANZAC frigates was being taken, we had expert advice that the minimum size for the frigate force was four, having regard to potential operational requirements, and the need for periods of training, refitting, crew-leave, and so forth. It may be that our off-shore patrol vessels might have some utility in the role I am envisaging here but there are questions about their sea-keeping in some of the conditions they might face. Similarly, there might be questions about the adequacy of our aerial-surveillance capabilities. Again, during a defence review is just the time to raise these questions.
The discussion to this point has ignored an important distinction: that between a refugee (a person who may demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution on racial, religious or political grounds) and an economic migrant. ‘Boat people’ may be in either category or both. Having regard to the state of civil strife in so many countries around the world, there are enormous numbers in both categories. The UN High Commission for Refugees estimates 15 million refugees world-wide but this is probably an underestimate and it does not include the internally displaced. New Zealand is presently taking towards 1,000 refugees per annum (700 in the UNHCR formal programme and 200-300 who just turn up at the airport and are accepted). Having regard to the other categories of immigrants, we might think that this is enough. Either way, it must surely be prudent (and in the interests of all our citizens) to make sure that we retain control over the process.