Richard Towle, UNHCR Regional Representative, discusses the New Zealand asylum-seeker debate in this item from the Dominion Post on 13 September 2012.
The issues of asylum-seekers and boat people coming to the region seem to excite an interest, and often heated debate, on both sides of the Tasman.
Disappointingly, much of the commentary, including that of Richard Long (We need balanced books, not boat people), falls into a number of populist traps.
First, the higher number of people taking dangerous and exploitative sea journeys is a symptom of the grave human insecurity that refugees face at home and the risks they are compelled to take to find safety for their families. It is no coincidence that most boat people come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka - places that are suffering, or have recently emerged, from long periods of serious human insecurity.
Against this backdrop, Long's assertion that boat people are "largely economic refugees" is simply wrong. In 2010-11, Australia found that 89.6 per cent of those claiming asylum by boat were genuine refugees in need of protection.
Second, he says these "economic' refugees are jumping some "queue". The sad reality for most of the world's 10.4 million refugees is that there is no queue. Most will languish for years, if not decades, in refugee camps or lost in urban areas without any hope of returning home or moving elsewhere. For a lucky few, the chance to move on to a place where they can find real and lasting security is grasped eagerly, even if this means taking dangerous journeys to do so.
Which of us would not do the same for ourselves and our families?
States can punish the people smugglers but they must not vilify and penalise the innocents who are seeking their protection.
Third, New Zealand has the benefit of geography that places it well beyond the normal reach of even these desperate people. This is why no boat has ever arrived at these shores. It is sensible to plan for that possibility. But those steps need to be measured, proportionate to the size of the problem and fully compliant with New Zealand's international obligations.
In the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' view, some of the measures being considered by Parliament are reasonable, but others are punitive and disproportionate to the risk. For instance, it is difficult for us to see how a boat arrival of 11 people - the threshold which triggers "mass arrivals" detention - will overwhelm the capacity of New Zealand to cope, whereas a boat of 500 people might justify short-term, exceptional measures.
Lastly, asylum seekers coming by boat or by air are simply exercising a right to protection that New Zealand and 147 other states have freely pledged to honour. To suggest that this involves being "nice to people smugglers" or presenting New Zealand as a "soft touch" seems to fall into the same simplistic narrative which Long levels at others.
For more than 50 years, New Zealand has upheld the Refugee Convention, and it continues to provide generous support for UNHCR's global programmes, including resettling 750 refugees a year.
But now is not the time for simplistic slogans. We need a careful and mature discourse about how we can best protect those less fortunate than ourselves who come to our shores - by whatever means.
Richard Towle is the UNHCR regional representative for Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific.