WELLINGTON - People-smugglers are looking to target New Zealand now that Australia's tough border protection policies have effectively "closed down" that country to asylum-seeker boats, Prime Minister John Key said Tuesday.
While the voyage to New Zealand from places such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka is potentially far more perilous than trying to reach Australia, Key said people-smugglers and asylum-seekers were willing to take the risk in the wake of Canberra's clampdown.
"We take this very seriously ... we know it's very hard to come to New Zealand, no one's arguing it's an easy distance or journey," he told TV3.
"But the reality is that as Australia closes down as a destination for asylum-seekers, they are trying to open up new frontiers and one of those is New Zealand."
Australia was facing record numbers of asylum-seekers before conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott was elected last year on a populist platform of "turning back the boats".
Under Canberra's policy, any asylum-seeker arriving by boat is transferred to remote centres in the Pacific for processing and permanent resettlement.
No refugee boat has yet reached New Zealand but Sri Lankan police in February arrested 75 would-be asylum-seekers who said were preparing to set off for the country.
Fairfax New Zealand reported on Sunday that people-smugglers in Indonesia were about to launch another attempt from a beach near Jakarta last week but were intercepted by police.
Wellington introduced laws last year allowing it to detain groups of asylum-seekers arriving by boat for six months, in what it said was a precautionary measure.
Key said he hoped New Zealand could avoid implementing policies similar to those adopted by Australia.
"I'd prefer to carry on the course we're on, which is to trying to disrupt those missions before they leave and send those messages very strongly in-country that you're not welcome through the back door in New Zealand," he said.
"We welcome migrants, but they've got be people who come under our terms and conditions, not people who effectively illegally turn up in New Zealand."