8.1 Overview


As outlined in Part 6: What Public sector agencies knew about the terrorist, the border agencies did not identify the individual as presenting a terrorist threat when he travelled in and out of New Zealand. This chapter provides an assessment of the border agencies’ roles in the counter-terrorism effort.


In this chapter, we:

  1. describe the border agencies and their roles in the counter-terrorism effort;
  2. explain how the agencies identify terrorism threats;
  3. discuss the coordination of the border agencies with the counter-terrorism effort;
  4. explain how the border agencies screened for right-wing extremist terrorist threats;
  5. describe the experiences of Muslim travellers at the border; and
  6. discuss developments that have occurred after 15 March 2019.


8.2 The border agencies


Immigration New Zealand and New Zealand Customs Service see themselves as “support” and “contributor” agencies to New Zealand’s counter-terrorism effort. They both attend the Security and Intelligence Board and New Zealand Customs Service also attends the Counter-Terrorism Coordination Committee (see Part 8, chapter 3). Both agencies have accountabilities in managing border alerts and ensuring New Zealand’s compliance with United Nations Security Council resolutions.


One of Immigration New Zealand’s main functions is to manage the entry of non-New Zealand citizens who wish to visit, work, study or live in New Zealand. Immigration officers make decisions about who can enter New Zealand according to criteria set out in the Immigration Act 2009, Immigration Regulations 2010 and Immigration Instructions (which are certified by the Minister of Immigration).


Immigration New Zealand “does not have a dedicated counter-terrorism function” and sees itself as “peripheral to the counter-terrorism system”. Immigration New Zealand told us they contribute to the counter-terrorism effort as part of the multi-agency management and risk mitigation of potential terrorist threats with immigration elements. New Zealand’s policy is to manage immigration risk offshore wherever possible rather than at the border.


New Zealand Customs Service’s main purpose is “protecting New Zealand from risks and threats at the border” while advancing New Zealand’s economy. These risks and threats cover a wide range, from illegal weapons, objectionable material, illicit drugs and hazardous substances, and people, including those of terrorism concern.


New Zealand Customs Service staff perform limited immigration duties on behalf of Immigration New Zealand at passport control.115 These duties include checking travel documentation, issuing visas and granting entry permission to legitimate travellers.


New Zealand Customs Service state that counter-terrorism is a “priority one” focus. However, other threats such as drugs and revenue evasion present more frequently at the border.


New Zealand Customs Service have a counter-terrorism intelligence team that supports frontline officers to respond to potential terrorism threats identified at the border. These potential threats also include people leaving New Zealand to participate in terrorism-related activities such as seeking to join designated terrorist entities in international conflict zones. The counter-terrorism intelligence team sets its work programme based on intelligence it creates or receives on new and emerging threats (including intelligence received from the Border Five agencies,116 which it assesses for relevance to New Zealand).


8.3 How border agencies identify terrorism threats


Immigration New Zealand and New Zealand Customs Service each have their own process for identifying terrorism threats. There are four main points where they can identify and act on terrorism threats. These are:

  1. during the visa application process;
  2. before passengers depart for New Zealand;
  3. before passengers arrive in New Zealand; and
  4. when passengers arrive at the New Zealand border.


The process the agencies use to assess risk at each of these points is described below.


Applying for a visa


On arrival in New Zealand, Australian citizens are eligible for a resident visa (with entitlements to work and study). This eligibility comes from the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement. They do not need to apply for pre-departure visas.


Before 15 March 2019, visitors from the 61 visa waiver countries117 could also apply for their visitor visa and entry permission together when they arrived in New Zealand by completing an arrival card and presenting it at the border. They also did not have to apply for pre-departure visas.


Travellers from all other countries must apply for their visa and have it approved by Immigration New Zealand before departing for New Zealand.


When assessing visa applications Immigration New Zealand use information they already hold on individuals and national security instructions when determining whether an individual poses a risk to national security.


Immigration New Zealand rely on national security instructions to determine if a visa applicant requires a National Security Check before their visa application can be processed. The national security instructions include a list of countries or territories of possible security concern, including those known for extremism. This list is primarily focused on people who have connections with African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries. If a National Security Check is required, this is carried out by the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service.118


Before departing for New Zealand


Passengers are assessed for risk by Immigration New Zealand before boarding a flight.


Immigration New Zealand receive passenger information through the Advanced Passenger Process. This information is sent from the airline as each flight checks in. The data is automatically checked to confirm that passengers have the correct visas,119 that the passport details do not appear in the international Criminal Police Organization’s (INTERPOL) database of lost or stolen passports and that no border alerts have been raised about a passenger.120


Immigration New Zealand also identify risks through its Risk Targeting Programme. Flights are assessed as low, medium or high risk. Flights that are considered high risk are assigned to an immigration officer for manual screening of every passenger’s information121 against immigration risk indicators and Immigration New Zealand’s target advice on terrorism. The target advice on terrorism is developed with information provided by other Public sector agencies including the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service. The targeting rules are mostly built around clusters of individual risk factors that, when present in a single travel record, indicate that the person may be a potential security risk. Flights that are considered low or medium risk are not assessed. The Risk Targeting Programme continues while the flight is traveling to New Zealand.


If any risks are identified from Advanced Passenger Processing (for example, if someone is on a no fly list) or through the Risk Targeting Programme, Immigration New Zealand will instruct the airline not to allow the person to board the plane. Immigration officers may also speak to the passenger before making their final decision.122 If the risk is identified too late to allow this to happen, an alert will be placed in New Zealand Custom Service’s database and it will be addressed when the passenger arrives at the border. If a potential terrorism threat is indicated, Immigration New Zealand will also inform the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service.


In 2017, the Auditor-General highlighted the Immigration New Zealand process as “inefficient”123 because, in practice, only flights classed as posing a high risk were assessed.


Before arriving in New Zealand


New Zealand Customs Service assess passengers for risk before their arrival in New Zealand but this generally occurs after the flight has departed.


New Zealand Customs Service run their automated, rules-based targeting system across the Passenger Name Record, passport and flight data.124 The counter-terrorism rules-based targeting system is built from a terrorism risk profile developed by New Zealand Customs Service’s intelligence team to aid in detecting possible border-related offending. The terrorism risk profile sets out a list of singular terrorism risks, which when combined into a rules-based targeting system can identify people of interest. Examples of individual risk factors include previous travel to certain countries or the country of origin. The terrorism risk profile is “regularly updated based on shifts in the global terrorism environment and on the analysis of risk as it relates to New Zealand”.


Where there is a rule match, a New Zealand Customs Service officer will manually assess the passenger’s potential risk. This can include inquiries into New Zealand Customs Service’s own information holdings or other sources. If a potential terrorism threat is indicated, the officer will inform Immigration New Zealand and the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service and will place an alert in New Zealand Customs Service's database for actioning at the border.


Immigration New Zealand and New Zealand Customs Service initiated the Collaborative Passenger Targeting Trial in January 2019. Risk rules for both agencies were run across all international flights arriving into New Zealand to identify passengers meeting specific travel profiles. This is discussed more below.


Arriving at the border


Passengers who have been identified by the border agencies as posing a risk through their pre-screening processes will have an alert in New Zealand Customs Service’s database. Alerts can also be created by other agencies, such as New Zealand Police.


An alert will provide advice to a New Zealand Customs Service officer who processes the person at passport control. This may include instructions as to how the alert should be acted on, such as detaining the person for the attendance of New Zealand Police or referring them to Immigration New Zealand.


There are other processes that New Zealand Customs Service use to identify people who may pose a risk to national security as they move through the Customs and Immigration Controlled areas of the airport. These include the following:

  1. Checking (either manually at passport control or through the eGates) that there is a match between the person’s face and their passport photo to avoid impersonation.
  2. Reviewing the passenger’s travel documents and arrival card information for declarations made on matters including previous convictions and recent travel history.
  3. Asking the passenger additional questions about their travel plans while in New Zealand to ensure the passenger is a legitimate traveller.
  4. X-raying or physically checking luggage to identify any prohibited items, such as weapons. If legal thresholds are met, electronic devices such as computers or phones, and arriving and departing travellers may be searched for evidence of offending.
  5. Profiling arriving passengers based on their appearance and behaviour.
  6. Using detector dogs to identify any prohibited items.


A person of interest may be identified, questioned, searched or referred to another agency. A record of the interaction, including any outcome, is added to New Zealand Customs Service’s intelligence database, which is “used to inform future analysis, risk assessment and possible interactions”.


Immigration New Zealand may also interact with a person at the border. This occurs where they have been identified as a risk through Immigration New Zealand’s earlier screening processes, through screening arriving passengers based on their appearance and behaviour, or because they have been referred to Immigration New Zealand by another agency.


Before 15 March 2019, if an Australian or someone from a visa waiver country was not a known threat, was not on one of the flights subject to Immigration New Zealand’s Risk Targeting Programme and did not meet a New Zealand Customs targeting rules, the only information available to assess risk was:

  1. near real-time Advanced Passenger Processing and Advanced Passenger Information data;
  2. Passenger Name Record data;
  3. what that person declared on their arrival card about their criminal history and whether they had been deported, removed or excluded from any country in the past;
  4. what was found through New Zealand Customs Service's screening process on arrival (such as x-rays or detector dogs);
  5. verbal questioning; and
  6. observations of their behaviour on arrival.


8.4 Goods-related threats


New Zealand Customs Service receive advanced information on all goods being imported into or exported from New Zealand excluding mail items. To manage any trade-related hazards or risks, a combination of commodity-based alerts and automated rules-based targeting (that looks at broader risk factors than just the description of the goods or tariff item) is used.


Currently, New Zealand Customs Service do not receive advanced information on the 30 million mail items (including letters) entering New Zealand each year. Risk assessments are carried out using a variety of methods. Suspicious mail items may be detained “pending further investigation or seized”.


For terrorism threats specifically, New Zealand Customs Service have commodity-based alerts for precursor ingredients such as “dangerous dual use chemicals”, which can be used to create improvised explosive devices.


8.5 Coordination of the border agencies with the counter‑terrorism effort


New Zealand Customs Service and Immigration New Zealand are both part of the Integrated Targeting and Operations Centre. This is “a multi-agency border security operations centre in Auckland” established in 2011. It “was designed to bring together multiple agencies in one location to better facilitate the targeting and treatment of risks presented to New Zealand’s border”.125 The Integrated Targeting and Operations Centre provides a 24 hour communications hub and operating centre to support agencies as required.126 The creation of the Integrated Targeting and Operations Centre improved coordination and information sharing between the agencies.127


Commenting on how the border agencies are strategically situated in the wider national security system, a 2016 review noted that:

Overall [national security] sector governance [has] perhaps ‘left well alone’ the border sector ... It had its strategy and knew Government’s priorities, its evolutionary systems developments were a work-in-progress and its operational performance overall was satisfactory.128


The review noted that the border agencies should continue to focus on how they can align and coordinate their work in order to adapt to possible changes in the threatscape and the implications at the border.


New Zealand Customs Service and Immigration New Zealand are looking for similar national security risk indicators. However, as explained above, each agency has its own database and risk assessment processes. In order to better coordinate their efforts and make use of their respective data, the border agencies initiated the Collaborative Passenger Targeting Trial in January 2019. By doing this, 100 percent of passengers on all flights were screened. The results showed that over the 16 week trial period, 20 percent of passengers identified as a risk did not meet the threshold for targeting by a single agency. If the Collaborative Passenger Targeting Trial had not been conducted these passengers would not have been identified before arriving in New Zealand. Collaborative Passenger Targeting is now applied across all flights.


The risk rules also have the potential to identify a person of interest much earlier than manual processing, as the first set of information is received up to 72 hours before the flight departs for New Zealand. This allows agencies more time to conduct further checks and act on information.


We observed that the border agencies could be better connected with the counter-terrorism effort:

  1. It is unclear what guidance and support the border agencies receive from other Public sector agencies such as the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, New Zealand Police and the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service.
  2. Neither the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service nor New Zealand Police currently receive information associated with the New Zealand electronic Travel Authority (see 8.8 Developments since 15 March 2019). Nor do they receive the Passenger Name Record data from New Zealand Customs Service. Information sharing is discussed in Part 8, chapter 9.
  3. There is no Memorandum of Understanding between New Zealand Customs Service and the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service. In September 2019 the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security’s review of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service’s relationships at the border said there would be value in “documenting clearly the basis and scope for the sharing of intelligence … and for collaboration on operations”.129 Both agencies are awaiting our report before negotiating a Memorandum of Understanding.


8.6 Identifying risks of right-wing extremism


Immigration New Zealand’s advice on who may present a risk for terrorism at the border has a strong emphasis on Islamist extremist terrorism indicators. Before 15 March 2019, there was no specific targeting rule in place for screening for extreme right-wing terrorism threats (such as travel history, age or gender).


Before 15 March 2019, New Zealand Customs Service’s passenger targeting rules and indicators for identifying potential terrorist threats at the border were also primarily targeted at identifying Islamist extremist terrorist threats, including those travelling to and from countries that are considered “high risk for religious extremism”. New Zealand Customs Service maintain that they are neither concerned with nor have any information on a traveller’s religious beliefs. Instead they focuses their efforts on “where the person may have been and what [the] person may have been up to”. We scrutinise this claim later in the chapter.


In 2013, New Zealand Customs Service added one indicator relating to white supremacy and right-wing extremism to their counter-terrorism profile to assist frontline staff. This was because they had “identified a rising global trend of extreme right-wing attacks” and because of extreme right-wing activity in Australia in 2013. We were told it started working with domestic and international intelligence and security agencies and border partners to “better understand the risk” of right-wing extremism in 2013. We have not been provided with evidence to suggest that much progress was made on this.


In 2018, New Zealand Customs Service included indicators of right-wing extremism in their training material for frontline officers. In December 2018, New Zealand Customs Service discussed concerns about right-wing extremism with New Zealand Police and the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service.


New Zealand Customs Service told us that they were detecting extreme right-wing individuals but their knowledge of the risk was “not as well developed as for some other threats to the New Zealand border”. They told us this was in line with the information available, the priority of other threats and was consistent with the practice of other domestic and international border and intelligence agencies.


8.7 Experiences of Muslim individuals at the border


During our engagement with communities, we heard that there is a strongly held belief that there is bias against Muslim individuals at the border. Muslim communities believe that Muslim individuals are stopped and questioned more frequently than non-Muslim individuals.


As noted above, New Zealand Customs Service state that they are not concerned with a traveller’s religious beliefs and instead focus their efforts on “where the person may have been and what [the] person may have been up to”.


Given the strong focus on the risk of Islamist extremist terrorism and the way that risk identification rules operate, particularly on travel originating in the Middle East, Muslim individuals are particularly susceptible to being stopped, interviewed and searched at the border. This is understandably regarded as a serious issue by many Muslim individuals and communities we spoke to. They see it as demonstrating a perception amongst officials that Muslim individuals pose particular threats and as being part of a widespread securitisation of Muslim communities.


The religion of someone presenting at the border will often be obvious. Passports from some countries explicitly state the passport holder’s religious affiliation. Religious affiliation can often be correlated with citizenship of countries that have large religious majorities. Certain surnames are often strongly indicative of religious affiliation. As well, the way a person dresses may also suggest a connection with a particular faith.


We acknowledge that the border agencies have put in place some training to enable their staff to act in a culturally safe manner and ensure they understand unconscious bias. However, the experiences of some community members suggest that there is further work to be done to improve staff training in this area.


It is also useful for the border agencies to engage with communities to ensure those communities understand the role of the agencies and the reasons for certain operational practices. We heard of good examples of this involving community forums in Auckland in 2018 that were led by the Human Rights Commission and Human Rights Foundation. These forums included officials from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, New Zealand Customs Service, New Zealand Police and the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service. At these community forums, officials discussed with Muslim communities a range of concerns, including searches conducted at the border, seizure of goods, immigration issues, objectionable material and surveillance. We heard feedback from community and Public sector agency attendees that these forums had been useful. We consider this type of engagement is worth repeating nationwide.


We also heard from international practitioners that gathering and publishing data on government interactions broken down by ethnicity (for example, in relation to searches) helps to dispel myths and is useful as it provides accurate information for informed public debate.


8.8 Developments since 15 March 2019


Immigration New Zealand’s target advice was updated after 15 March 2019. It now refers to right-wing extremism and includes some relevant indicators of right-wing extremist ideology.


The New Zealand electronic Travel Authority was introduced on 1 October 2019. Visa waiver travellers now need to complete a New Zealand electronic Travel Authority and have it granted at least 72 hours before they depart for New Zealand. Travellers applying for a New Zealand electronic Travel Authority are currently not required to provide their recent travel history as part of the application process. Nor are they required to declare whether they have travelled to countries designated as high risk.


Immigration New Zealand told us that expanding the New Zealand electronic Travel Authority to collect additional information useful for risk targeting would pose “practical issues” and have “cost implications” and create “significant additional compliance burden[s]” for applicants.


Australians are exempt from New Zealand electronic Travel Authority requirements. This limits Immigration New Zealand’s ability to assess Australian citizens’ risk before they arrive in New Zealand.


8.9 Concluding comments


Before 15 March 2019, the border agencies’ focus on terrorist threats was primarily directed towards identifying Islamist extremism. There was limited focus on right-wing extremism. Since 15 March 2019, the border agencies have been updating their risk identification rules to incorporate more indicators relevant to right-wing extremism.


The focus on Islamist extremism and the corresponding way that risk identification rules operated meant that Muslim individuals were commonly stopped, interrogated and searched at the border. This has reduced trust and confidence in the border agencies. This lack of trust signals the need for continued efforts by the border agencies to engage with Muslim communities to explain how their processes operate and reassure them of what is being done to identify right-wing extremist terrorist risks.


We do not make recommendations in relation to the border agencies. They make contributions to the counter-terrorism effort that are generally efficient and well-calibrated to what is realistic within the time constraints associated with prompt border processing of people and goods. They have made efforts recently to work more collaboratively to address inefficiencies in the system, for example through the Collaborative Passenger Targeting Trial.


There is, of course, scope for improvement. This includes closer integration of the border agencies in the counter-terrorism effort to ensure that the information and expertise they hold can be used in cross-agency counter-terrorism efforts. As well, there is work to be done to improve the experiences of Muslim individuals at the border. We see both issues as able to be addressed within the framework provided by our recommendations on the counter-terrorism effort and social cohesion (see Part 10: Recommendations).


115. Office of the Controller and Auditor-General Report on Border Security: Using information to process passengers (June 2017).

116. The Border Five is a trusted partnership that evolved from the Five Eyes intelligence relationship. See Office of the Controller and Auditor-General, footnote 115 above.

117. Listed in Schedule 2 of the Immigration (Visa, Entry Permission, and Related Matters) Regulations 2010.

118. The New Zealand Security Intelligence Service is currently undertaking a review of the National Security Check process for visa and other immigration applications.

119. This does not apply if they are a New Zealand citizen, Australian citizen or are eligible for a visa waiver.

120. Office of the Controller and Auditor-General, footnote 115 above.

121. Immigration New Zealand uses the Advanced Passenger Processing data and the Passenger Name Record data. Passenger Name Record data is provided by the airline up to 72 hours before the flight’s departure. It contains a range of information, including passengers’ biographic data, itinerary, ticket information, contact details and means of payment. Passenger Name Record data is held by New Zealand Customs Service but Immigration New Zealand also has access to it.

122. Immigration New Zealand currently receives Advanced Passenger Processing data on individuals travelling to New Zealand and individuals leaving New Zealand.

123. Office of the Controller and Auditor-General, footnote 115 above.

124. Passport and flight information is captured in the Advanced Passenger Information that New Zealand Customs Service are provided when the flight departs.

125. Simon Murdoch Review of the Integrated Targeting and Operations Centre (July 2016).

126. Simon Murdoch, footnote 127 above.

127. Office of the Controller and Auditor-General, footnote 116 above.

128. Simon Murdoch, footnote 127 above

129. Office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Report on a review of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service relationships at the border (6 September 2019).