Indian police investigate suspected people smuggling to New Zealand

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Police in southern India are investigating a suspected attempt to illegally transport more than 100 people by boat to New Zealand, an official says.

Additional Superintendent of Police Sojan in Kerala state said police were questioning people who failed to board the fishing boat, who said it left nine days ago for New Zealand.

The distance for the trip would be vast – the boat would have to cover nearly 12,000 kilometres, which is about 1000 kilometres more than the distance between Auckland and Los Angeles.

Sojan, who uses one name, said police began investigating when they found dozens of abandoned bags containing dried fruits and “everything needed for a sea journey” near the harbour in Kochi in Kerala state.

“The boat is gone, that’s for sure,” he said by telephone.

Police believe the fishing boat was so overcrowded that many people had to leave their luggage behind. Sojan said it was unclear where the boat might be.

“We have not been able to trace the boat so far, no radio connection, no radar, nothing is coming out,” Sojan said. “It was a fishing boat, not a passenger boat. The boat had been purchased just for this purpose.”

He said no arrests had been made.

The Indian Express newspaper said police recovered more than 50 abandoned bags near Kodungallur temple in Thrissur district and later found more bags at Munambam harbor in Kochi.

The newspaper said the bags – containing clothes, IDs and other documents – belonged to about 230 people.

Sojan said it was unclear how many were on board, but “more than 100.”

Immigration New Zealand’s (INZ) assistant general manager Stephen Vaughan said INZ would not comment on specific ventures, but it was aware that people smugglers expressed interest in targeting New Zealand, and it remain vigilant to any possible venture.

While reports of these types of ventures are concerning, the message to anyone contemplating such a journey is simple, he said: any attempt to reach New Zealand will put your life, and the lives of your family members, at great risk. There is every chance you will drown at sea.

Although there has never been a mass arrival in this country, there’s no doubt that New Zealand is a target for people smugglers and a mass arrival at some stage is a very real possibility that we need to be fully prepared for, he said.

INZ works with its international partners to monitor and respond to potential mass arrivals.

Under the Immigration Act 2009, those who arrive as part of a mass arrival are to be detained for up to six months. The detention period can be extended for up to 28 days at a time, if a District Court judge determines that is necessary.

Having the ability to detain people being smuggled into New Zealand gives agencies time to establish and confirm identities and assess whether an individual poses a risk to national security or public safety, he said.

Legislation passed in 2013 ensures New Zealand has measures in place to effectively manage a mass arrival, and sends a clear message to potential people smuggling ventures that New Zealand is not a soft touch, he said.