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Asylum seekers not political pawns, says human rights group

Contributor:
Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Wellington, July 7 NZPA - Amnesty International has joined calls for New Zealand to avoid being roped into supporting Australia's off-shore asylum seeker processing centre proposal, and says those at the centre of discussions are not political pawns.

New Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said yesterday her government intended cracking down on the people smugglers who transport asylum seekers to Australia, and that she had been in discussions with East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta about the possibility of setting up a processing centre in that country.

Prime Minister John Key confirmed Ms Gillard had spoken to him about supporting such an initiative.

He said people smuggling was a realistic threat to New Zealand in the future and while a regional solution made sense, further discussions were needed.

"We are supportive of Australia looking for a solution, but it's also very important we lay out our bottom line -- no increase in the number of refugees we would take under the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) process," he said. That number stands at 750 a year.

There has been split debate in Australia and New Zealand about how to deal with asylum seekers, but an Amnesty International New Zealand spokeswoman, Margaret Taylor, said today most had genuine reasons to seek refuge and should not be used as political pawns.

Both countries had an obligation under international conventions to protect asylum seekers fleeing from violence and persecution, and who may have a genuine refugee claim, she said.

Ms Taylor echoed calls from Labour and the Greens about a processing centre being an unlikely solution and warned against any return to the former Australian policy of mandatory off-shore detention, known as the Pacific Solution, where detainees were left in often inhumane conditions with little access to assistance.

Green Party immigration spokesman Keith Locke said today New Zealand should not play any role in processing asylum seekers off-shore.

"It would be unfortunate if New Zealand gave legitimacy to a regional centre on Timor-Leste that was really just another Australian detention camp," he said.

Labour leader Phil Goff said today that New Zealand needed to be cautious about joining Australian debates on the issue, especially when that country was leading into an election -- a situation where decisions were not always made with long-term goals in mind.

East Timor was already dealing with the problem of 100,000 internally displaced people and didn't need another problem.

All three said it was unrealistic to think New Zealand might be targeted by boat people, considering its isolation. "It is important that New Zealand does not over-react to the unlikely scenario of boatloads of asylum seekers flooding our shores," Ms Taylor said.

Mr Locke said the number of people getting refugee status here was well down on what it was a few years ago and said the 750 quota could be lifted to 1000 with little sacrifice.

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