Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is unconcerned by reports of people smugglers sending boats to New Zealand, saying she is unable to answer whether the leak is an attempt from Australian spies to undermine her stance on the Manus refugee crisis.
According to a report in the Courier Mail, Operation Sovereign Borders – Australia’s border security initiative – has turned back four boats carrying 164 asylum seekers trying to get to New Zealand.
The story also reported “genuine fears within intelligence communities” that Ardern’s approach to and criticism of the refugee crisis on Manus Island and Nauru could be used by people smugglers to encourage more to make the dangerous trip.
The Courier Mail said “chatter” had resumed among people smugglers as a result of the Manus stand-off.
Ardern has created headlines during her trip to Asia by speaking out about conditions on Manus Island and reiterating New Zealand’s offer to take 150 refugees, saying she saw “the human face” of the conditions facing those at the shuttered detention centre.
She told media in Vietnam she was seeking a “more substantive” talk with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull about Manus at the East Asia Summit in Vietnam, but has failed so far to secure a formal meeting.
While the Courier Mail report did not specify when the boats made the attempt, it described the news as “shock new details”.
Speaking to ABC Radio last week, Turnbull suggested New Zealand had been a beneficiary of Australia’s hardline approach in the past.
“Do you know, we have intercepted and turned back boats which were heading to New Zealand?
“I mean the people smugglers, the only reason New Zealand does not have thousands of people arriving in an unauthorised way on their shores is because of our border protection policies.”
“It is unacceptable to have people manipulate those in vulnerable situations by acting as smugglers and organising shipments of people. They must be stopped.”
– Jacinda Ardern
Speaking to media in Manila, Ardern said she was unconcerned by the reports of attempted journeys to New Zealand.
“There has been ongoing attempts over the years, both to reach Australia and also there have always been rumoured attempts of going beyond that.”
Anybody who tried to “put at risk vulnerable people’s lives should come under the full force of the law”, she said.
“It is unacceptable to have people manipulate those in vulnerable situations by acting as smugglers and organising shipments of people. They must be stopped, New Zealand has played a role in trying to stop them.
Asked whether she viewed the Australian report as an attempt to undermine her position on Manus and portray her as a soft touch, Ardern said she could not answer that.
However, she said New Zealand had worked alongside Australia for a number of years to stop people from risking their lives on boat trips.
Asked about the reference to the resumption of chatter, Ardern said: “I’ve been given no indication that chatter ever stopped.”
Regarding her meeting with Turnbull, she had spoke to him “in passing” while officials were also holding talks about the situation.
“Of course both of us are busy, involved in the summit and other bilaterals, but we’ve asked our officials to work together too.”
She pushed back at suggestions the lack of a meeting was a snub, saying the pair had been able to make progress during their brief time together.
“I think we’re splitting hairs over whether or not it needs to be formally sitting down or over a cup of tea in a waiting room – we’ve spoken, we did that yesterday and now we have our officials talking together again today as well…
“You’d be surprised what I can do over a cup of tea.”