Border control clampdown shuts door on visitors
06 August 2006
By RUTH HILL and LEIGH VAN DER STOEP

Potential visitors to New Zealand are being turned away in droves as border controls tighten. In the past year, visa rejections have jumped from 9 per cent to 24 per cent - a special immigration screening unit was set up in June 2005. But critics say potential terrorists may have already slipped into the country while ordinary citizens are being barred from visiting their New Zealand relatives.

The Immigration Profiling Group assesses applicants from a secret list of 23 'high-risk' countries. Immigration Minister David Cunliffe is refusing to say which countries are on the black list, fearing a backlash against New Zealand's diplomatic and trade interests.

As well as those who have had their visa applications turned down, another 323 people have been turned away on arrival at New Zealand airports in the past three months.

Green MP Keith Locke said the jump in visa rejections had little to do with 'the terrorism bogey'. Of the 7500 who applied for visitor visas in the past 18 months, 21 (0.28 per cent) were turned down for 'security reasons', but 24 per cent were declined overall.

Locke said visas were being denied because the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) had advised against removing people to countries with bad human rights records. 'Under the government's weird logic, they have decided not to let them in at all.'

Those having the hardest time getting a visitor visa were from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa, he said. Dozens of South Africans have been turned away at airports in recent months - including a former top police detective. The South African consul has asked for a meeting with immigration department officials.

Auckland-based consul Jock Irvine said South African expatriate families living in New Zealand were worried their visiting relatives might be sent back on the next flight. Other countries are also experiencing significant changes in visa approvals.

Those for Iraqis dropped from 214 in 2004/05 to 92 in 2005/06, for Zimbabweans from 924 to 306, for Burmese from 116 to 72 and for Somalis from 112 to 45. The Immigration Profiling Group is also reviewing approved visa applications back to April 2003.

Meanwhile, the Labour Department will not confirm if a Yemeni man linked to one of the September 11, 2001 hijackers, who spent four months in New Zealand earlier this year before being expelled as 'a national security risk', had been vetted and cleared by the Immigration Profiling Group.

Information released to the Sunday Star-Times under the Official Information Act shows United States-trained pilot Rayed Mohammed Abdullah Ali arrived in New Zealand in February after applying for a visa as a salesman. He was deported on May 29 after police and immigration officials raided his Palmerston North home.

Ali, 28, lived and trained in Phoenix, Arizona, with fellow Saudi Hani Hanjour in the months before Hanjour is believed to have piloted American Airlines Flight 77 which crashed into the Pentagon. The case came to light after an Auckland flying school raised concerns about him.

The acting manager for border security for the Department of Labour, Rennie Van der Velde, said he could not confirm whether Ali had been cleared by the Immigration Profiling Group. Releasing any details about the types of applications assessed by the group "could assist people in attempting to bypass this additional level of screening", he said.

The Immigration Profiling Group employs 43 staff, 15 temporary staff, and has a annual budget of $3.77 million.

National Party immigration spokesman Lockwood Smith said the reason the government was refusing to reveal how many people already granted visitors visas had been identified as security risks was 'because it would show how little they've done'.

'It's a serious issue that potentially dangerous individuals are coming into this country illegally...'

- Sunday Times*Star