The head of Immigration New Zealand says there has been no increase in the risk of people smugglers making trips here, backing up his foreign affairs counterparts and countering Australian reports of increased “chatter”.

During a trip to Asia last year, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke out about conditions facing refugees on Manus Island, saying she saw “the human face” of the conditions facing those at the shuttered detention centre and reiterating New Zealand’s 2013 offer to take up to 150 refugees from the Papua New Guinea island or Nauru.

Following the remarks, Australian media cited “genuine fears within intelligence communities” that New Zealand’s stance could prove an incentive for more people smugglers to make the trip, while the Opposition has been quick to suggest Ardern had put New Zealand at greater risk.

Speaking to Parliament’s foreign affairs, defence and trade committee, Immigration NZ head Nigel Bickle said people smugglers ran the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world, behind only drugs and guns, and would do whatever they could to encourage people to take a risk.

“Smugglers will use any opportunity and any public comment, whether it’s by a government, an opposition…anything that might further their cause, which is about getting bums on boats basically,” Bickle said.

However, Bickle said there were no signs of any increased risk for New Zealand following Ardern’s comments.

The country was not immune from the threat of people smugglers arriving by boat, but its geographic location meant it faced a lower risk.

Bickle said New Zealand officials worked closely with Australia and other partners in the region to “counter the propaganda” from people smugglers encouraging others to make the trip.

Immigration NZ general manager for settlement Steve McGill said the agency would follow a “business as usual” approach if Australia did opt to take up the offer.

“We have a view at a reasonably good level of what that might look like, but we haven’t gone into detailed planning at this point.”

McGill said New Zealand had a rigorous selection process for refugees, which included interviews with candidates to assess their eligibility and checks of their health, security backgrounds, and biometric information.

The refugee selection process would differ from New Zealand’s annual quota process as it would be Papua New Guinea and Nauru which had assessed their eligibility status as signatories to the UN Convention on Refugees, as opposed to the UNHCR refugee agency as normal.

McGill said Immigration NZ would need to work with the two countries and the UNHCR to ensure their screening processes had been sound.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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