Amnesty International is calling on the Government to deal with asylum seekers in the countries they are fleeing from rather than putting them in detention when they arrive in New Zealand.
The Government has announced changes to the Immigration Act which will allow a mass warrant for detention for up to six months to be issued by a district court should a group of asylum seekers land in the country.
At present individual warrants have to be issued. Immigration Minister Nathan Guy says this takes a long time, and it will also be made a lot harder for asylum seekers to bring their extended family in.
Amnesty International Acting CEO Rebecca Emery told TV ONE's Breakfast that Australia's system of detention centres for asylum seekers is a disaster, and New Zealand already has robust systems for dealing with these people.
"We'd urge that if energy is going to be put into this issue it happens at the source - the countries these people are fleeing from," Emery said.
"We have robust systems for dealing with asylum seekers already in the countries. Let's look at the systems we have and not bring a system which I don't think is going to work."
The Government says it wants to send a message to people smugglers that New Zealand is not "a soft touch".
'Streamlining' the system
Guy told Breakfast the Government was concerned that a steel hulled vessel with up to 500 asylum seekers on board sailed 13,000 kilometres to Canada two years ago, and that 10 Chinese boat people in Darwin indicated they wanted to come to New Zealand recently before deciding to seek asylum in Australia.
He said the Government wants to streamline how the court system deals with asylum seekers.
"Currently we have about 300 that seek asylum, or they go through the process, and about a quarter of those are accepted. So about three quarters are deported and sent back home."
He said the Government needs to weigh up asylum seekers' individual considerations, whether they are a security risk to New Zealand, their health, and this all takes some time.
Asked if asylum seekers could be detained indefinitely, Guy said that under the proposal it will be detention for up to six months, with a district court judge having to confirm that.
"After the six month period we go back to the court to seek another 28 days. So it could mean that people could be detained for some period of time. It could take some time, I'm not sure that it would be indefinitely."
He said this depends on the security risk posed.
"In some cases these people arrive without any documentation, without any papers. It does take time for officials to confirm their identity."
Emery admitted it is possible New Zealand might get a mass arrival of asylum seekers on boats but said an open discussion is needed on the issue and "to really see what the risks are".
She said that when the 10 Chinese Falon Gong practitioners arrived in Darwin, the UNHCR High Commissioner put the size of the asylum seeker problem in this part of the world in perspective.
"And it's miniscule in terms of the movement of refugees and asylum seekers."
Emery said the Government changes smack of taking a sledgehammer to a problem that may be posed in New Zealand, and set a dangerous precedent.
She said while the Government is talking of mass detention and stopping queue jumping, asylum seekers are not criminals but are allowed to seek asylum here under the refugee convention New Zealand signed in 1960.
Joint exercise to prepare for possible mass arrival
Meanwhile, a major exercise to test New Zealand's preparations for a mass arrival of asylum seekers by boat is starting tomorrow.
The aim is to make sure New Zealand is fully prepared to respond to a mass arrival by sea of potentially illegal immigrants, Guy said in a statement.
"We know that New Zealand has been a target in the past for people smugglers, and we need to be prepared for future attempts.
"It will start from first notification that a vessel is on the way, through to processing and accommodating these asylum seekers while their claims are determined."
Exercise Barrier 2012 will take place over eight weeks, running until late June 2012.
The exercise will include several planning exercises and a simulated mass arrival at Devonport Naval Base in June.
The New Zealand Customs Service and Immigration New Zealand will be the lead agencies for the exercise, given their responsibilities for New Zealand's border security and immigration laws.
Other agencies involved include Defence, Police, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Education, Health, MAF, Foreign Affairs and Trade, Corrections and Social Development.
Agencies continually monitor the risk of a mass arrival and ensure plans to respond to such a threat are up to date, Guy said.
"This exercise will help agencies test their planning at a practical level. Together with the new legislation we are introducing, this sends a strong message that queue jumpers and people smugglers won't be tolerated," the minister said.