The year 2007 has been dubbed by the US as ‘The Year of the Pacific’. There are great opportunities for New Zealand but only if we take an active role and do everything practicable to build an ongoing relationship with ourPacific neighbours.
Fiji, the Cooks, Vanuatu, Samoa, are still seen by many New Zealanders as the most popular choice for the perfect island holiday and Kiwis rush to book package holidays to these paradise destinations right on our front doorstep.
Despite recent incidents of civil unrest in the Pacific Islands, Air New Zealand in April announced it would boost services between Auckland, Rarotonga and Los Angeles.
The Pacifi c region has long occupied a central place in New Zealand’s foreign policy. Overall, the percentage of the New Zealand population that identify themselves as being of Pacifi c ethnicity has grown rapidly over recent decades and now accounts for 6.9 percent of the total population.
Journalist Michael Field, who has been writing articles and books on the Pacifi c since 1974, believes New Zealand is seen as a "warm and accepted neighbour in Pacifi c, free of the overbearing allegations often laid against Australians".
New Zealand clearly has a commitment to strengthening relationships with the Pacifi c. The Government’s Pacifi c Access scheme, along with the traditional Samoan quota and new seasonal work programmes, will open additional opportunities for Pacifi c people.
But, with the expansion of trade and travel, comes the need to provide effective management and security at the border. "Border control is vague at best," Field says. "Even in places like Fiji, which has a degree of sophistication, the recent unrest allowed a well known conman to fl ee and escape to Vanuatu.
"Pacific states are proud of their sovereignty and they do seek control of their borders. However they are faced with the reality that the infrastructures needed to do the job are expensive." New Zealand Customs manager, international relations, Richard Bargh says while it is diffi cult to point to any specifi c instances of lapses in border control, "we know that Pacifi c Island institutions are not strong and where there’s instability and disestablishment it can fl ow on.
"The weaker the border systems are in Pacifi c countries, the more likely it is that risk will fi lter through to New Zealand."
Bargh says New Zealand has funded a number of capacity building projects recently. A critically important project will be the scoping of a customs automated system that all Pacifi c administrations can use, which will enhance systems for information collection.
"We’ve had a very good relationship with Pacifi c countries in the past and have been seen as the moderate voice on key issues," Bargh says. "But there is still a lot we can do to further that relationship."
Already, New Zealand Customs, Immigration and other border agencies are currently working on an Integrated Border Security Strategy, which will ensure that border agencies are working together on common objectives.
New Zealand Customs Pacifi c liaison offi cer, John Houghton says geographic isolation, small economies and the absence of land boundaries in the Pacifi c, present real challenges.
"As a consequence, New Zealand Customs has had a long history of engagement in the Pacifi c, both bilaterally and regionally," Houghton says.
Robert Taylor, head of the secretariat of the Oceania Customs Organisation, or OCO, has noted that the New Zealand Customs Service is viewed very positively in the Pacifi c. The OCO is an important regional organisation. Taylor describes the Customs Service as "highly professional, advanced, experts." He observes that Houghton’s position has raised the profi le even further.
At the same time, Taylor said, the New Zealand government should be praised for making it possible for the OCO Secretariat to have a permanent home in Suva, Fiji.
These kind of initiatives help move OCO countries towards gaining the necessary global standards that would see them able to trade more effectively on a world stage.
The OCO works closely with its bigger, global partner, the World Customs Organisation (WCO), which represents 171 countries, to ensure that the smaller countries in the Pacific can access the full range of WCO tools and resources. Six OCO members are WCO members – New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Papua New Guinea.
But while capacity building projects are underway in the Pacific, border security continues to be a hot topic.
"If we have weak borders in our neighbouring countries, it can open the door to exploitation from individual criminals, and the more sophisticated organised criminal syndicates," says Matthew Gibbs, the Pacifi c Immigration Directors’ Conference (PIDC) head of secretariat.
"Countries with weak or outdated legislation, combined with a perception of corruptibility, are soft targets for criminal elements looking for bases to establish wider crime networks. This also raises the issue of terrorism," he says.
Dean Blakemore, the new Immigration regional liaison offi cer – Pacifi c Border Security Group, based in Apia says the solution to immigration and related border issues cannot be solved by one agency or country alone.
"We are beginning to recognise the signifi cance and value of having a presence in the Pacifi c whereby we can work closely with our colleagues for the greater good of the region. This requires buy-in from a governmental level and dedicated fi nancial backing over the long term."