2012 June: Exercise BARRIER at DNB
By LT CDR ANGE Barker
As dawn broke on Auckland Harbour, a suspected refugee ship (MV OCEAN MOON) carrying 497 potentially illegal immigrants came under the escort of HMNZS ROTOITI. The suspect vessel, carrying men, women and children from Sri Lanka, had travelled many weeks to reach the coast of New Zealand and was the first mass arrival of asylum seekers encountered in our waters.
This was only a scenario simulation of such an event; however the realistic nature with which it was carried out ensured New Zealand’s preparations for a mass arrival of asylum seekers by boat were tested and evaluated on a practical level.
The lead agencies for the Exercise were Immigration and Customs, but the NZDF, and particularly the RNZN, played a key logistical role not the least of which was providing the entry point for the vessel.
Throughout the Exercise the RNZN supplied the suspect vessel (in reality HMNZS MANAWANUI), the intercept vessel (HMNZS ROTOITI), over 30 actors (to supplement the hired actors to create a pool of 100 Potentially Illegal Immigrants) and significant logistical support to the other Government agencies involved in the scenario.
As the ship berthed alongside DNB, the actors were met by a wall of Customs, Immigration, St John Ambulance, District Health Board and Corrections staff who put them through the full processing required in such a situation.
To assist in the scenario, each Potentially Illegal Immigrant was given a full history to learn and study in the weeks building up to the Exercise which helped with the realistic nature of the processing. The actors included young children, pregnant women and men with chequered histories and links with known terrorist groups. The variety of immigrants, although reflective of a real situation, proved challenging for all the agencies involved, which were tasked to ensure the correct care was given in each case.
As the day wore on, each immigrant was put through the rigorous “production line” of processing which involved an initial inspection (for weapons, drugs or other illegal items), a preliminary identification process, a triage/medical assessment phase and then a longer arrival process which involved a detailed identification process (photographs, fingerprints and the like), interviews, legal representation and a court appearance if required. The end result of this processing phase is that each individual would have been transported to either a refugee detention centre, a corrections facility or possibly released into the care of a New Zealand resident (if they could, for example, prove a family connection).
If the scenario were real this initial process within DNB would take approximately three to five days in order to process 500 asylum seekers. During that time the agencies would all be working 24 hours a day in shift cycles.
To put an event like this in to perspective, the Minister of Immigration, Mr Nathan Guy, cited similar situations that have occurred in countries considered less likely targets than New Zealand.
“A freighter with 500 asylum seekers was intercepted off the coast of Canada two years ago, so if they can get to Canada they can certainly get to New Zealand and we need to be prepared,” he said the during the live exercise. “The running of this exercise sends a strong message that queue jumpers and people smugglers won’t be tolerated.”
The requirement to be prepared for such an influx has become more real as people smugglers gain access to larger steel-hulled vessels that are more capable of surviving a voyage to New Zealand. Our geographical isolation no longer guarantees we won’t be a target for entry of this kind.
And so, on what turned out to be a mild winter’s day, the Devonport Naval Base became the processing point for 100 asylum seekers, and a staging base for some of the 18 Government Agencies involved in the event. The day was deemed a success with many positive lessons learned to ensure the plan is robust and able to cope if an illegal vessel such as MV OCEAN MOON were able to make it to our shores.
Picture: A ‘Potentially Illegal Immigrant’ gets a pat-down on the deck of ‘OCEAN MOON’, aka MANAWANUI.