Contraband - NZ Customs

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Preparing for a mass-arrival


As part of the ongoing work to enhance New Zealand’s management of the people smuggling risk, a major exercise entitled Exercise Barrier 2012 ran through May and June 2012. The Exercise co-Directors were Peter Elms from Immigration NZ and John Ladd from Customs.

Barrier was part of the ‘whole-of-government’ preparedness planning programme, and was designed to practice government agencies’ operational planning and response to a sea-borne mass-arrival of potential illegal immigrants from start to finish.

Barrier evaluated the revised Mass Arrival Response Manual (MARM) and tested agencies' planning, capacity and capability at a practical level.

It assessed this capability with three table top exercises, and a live exercise, which saw the arrival of a vessel with potential illegal immigrants at the Devonport Naval Base in Auckland on 19 June. Barrier was coordinated by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and covered all phases of the MARM involving Customs and Immigration New Zealand, given their responsibilities for New Zealand’s border security and immigration laws.

Customs officers boarded a naval vessel (named the MV Ocean Moon for the exercise) at sea. The vessel was simulated to be carrying 100 actors playing the part of potentially illegal immigrants and was escorted to the Devonport Naval Base where processing activities began. These consisted of security, health, biosecurity, and immigration checks performed by staff from Immigration NZ, Auckland District Health Board, Police, Ministry for Primary Industries, St John, Justice, Corrections and Customs. Customs and Immigration staff coordinated activities from within the Integrated Targeting and Operations Centre, based in the Auckland Customhouse. While it was an exercise, Barrier’s scenario is very plausible.

“The arrival of ‘boat people’ in Australia continues to be a major issue for the government there; and past events in Canada have highlighted the threat that a sophisticated people smuggling group could pose to New Zealand,” says Customs Manager Strategic Coordination, John Ladd.

Exercises like Barrier are an important way of testing preparedness and highlighting opportunities to improve planning. The response to the exercise scenario was consistent with a real event response, as directed in the MARM. Customs was responsible for the assessment of people smuggling intelligence and coordinating the intelligence picture developed by the Mass Arrivals Joint Intelligence Group.

“Customs’ and Immigration’s role in the exercise was to act as the Response Coordinators (RC) for the arrival of potentially illegal immigrants by sea; prior to the vessel’s entry into New Zealand’s waters through to berthing and disembarking in an appropriate port and subsequent immigration processing” says Mr Ladd.

“As the RC (Customs), Customs is responsible for developing the multiagency plan (in the form of detailed multi-agency Standard Operating Procedure) for detection, boarding, and landing.”

The RC (Immigration) is responsible for the conduct of the final phase of the exercise to test the detention process and refugee assessment at the Waiouru army base. One of the objectives of this phase of the exercise was to evaluate the army base’s suitability as an immigration holding facility that may be required for many months.

Customs Minister Maurice Williamson and Immigration Minister Nathan Guy observed Exercise Barrier and spoke positively about the planning and execution of the exercise.

“I was very impressed with what I saw and everything went very smoothly,” says Minister Williamson. “But we know that we can’t afford to be complacent about the risks of a mass arrival happening here and everything needs to be done to ensure that we’re as prepared as possible”.

Mr Guy said that the exercise was akin to people living in a high rise apartment block practicing fire drills which they hope will never happen.

“Observers from Canadian and Australian Customs and Immigration departmental equivalents have been shadowing New Zealand Customs and Immigration offi cers during the exercise. The New Zealand offi cers will benefi t greatly from the guidance of the international subject matter experts who have fi rst-hand experience of maritime mass-arrivals and have been involved in the development of national response frameworks,” says Minister Williamson.

“Exercises like Barrier enable the Government to raise awareness, and provide understanding to the New Zealand public in the possibility of a mass-arrival of illegal immigrants by sea.”

The live exercise was followed by a forum where the international observers from Australia and Canada outlined their national response frameworks and operational processes for initial health screening, border processing and detention. Participants found the sessions valuable as they were able to draw on the observers’ experiences and relevant lessons for New Zealand.

Exercise Barrier concluded on 29 June with a formal debrief for all participants in Wellington.


  • Australian Customs and Border Protection Service
  • Australia’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship
  • Canada Border Services Agency
  • Citizenship and Immigration Canada
  • Royal Canadian Mounted Police


  • New Zealand Customs Service
  • Immigration New Zealand
  • New Zealand Police
  • New Zealand Defence Force
  • National Maritime Coordination Centre
  • Ministry of Health
  • Ministry of Justice (Courts)
  • Ministry of Education
  • New Zealand Treasury
  • Government Communications Security Bureau
  • New Zealand Security Intelligence Service
  • Department of Corrections
  • Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet
  • Department of Child Youth and Family
  • (within the Ministry of Social Development)
  • Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade
  • Maritime New Zealand
  • Ministry for Primary Industries
  • Auckland District Health Board
  • St John Ambulance