Jacinda Ardern tight-lipped on number of Kiwis in Syria conflict zone
Source: https://www.stuff.co.nz/news/110875255/-

2019-06-11 05:03:38

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern remains tight-lipped on the number of New Zealand citizens currently in the Syria conflict zone.

On Radio New Zealand's Morning Report on Tuesday, Ardern confirmed that "a small number" of Kiwis were in the conflict zone, but she would not disclose the number.

A spokesman for the prime minister told Stuff it was difficult to obtain accurate information about individuals in Syria because the situation is very fluid.

"There are a small number of New Zealand citizens – some of whom are dual citizens – who could be there. For national security reasons, we are not prepared to be more explicit about that."

Last week, Security Intelligence Service (SIS) director Rebecca Kitteridge told a select committee at Parliament that a "small but concerning" number of New Zealand citizens were still in Syria. Kitteridge did not specify how many New Zealanders were in Syria, nor whether any of them intended to come home.

Ardern told Radio New Zealand: "I'm not going to give a specific number when the head of the SIS doesn't."

"Obviously Rebecca Kitteridge has not given a number and I won't do that either. But I do want to put emphasis on the fact that she has said it is a small number; certainly not the scale that you'll have seen from some of the other countries where numbers are in the public domain."

Ardern said the Government's role was to be prepared for people to return - "and we are".

When Stuff asked why the prime minister could not divulge more information to the public, the prime minister's spokesman said there were security risks involved.

"The safety and security of New Zealand and New Zealanders will always be paramount for the Government," he said.

"We take the issue of New Zealand citizens suspected of association with terrorist groups extremely seriously. If any New Zealand citizen suspected of association with terrorists groups was to return to New Zealand, they would be investigated under New Zealand law."

If a New Zealander were to return home, the Government was well-prepared to respond, he said.

"Contingency planning has been under way for some time involving a number of agencies. It would include a comprehensive response and management plan for any individual returning from the conflict zone.

"The circumstances of these individuals is highly complex and any investigation or possible proceedings would be a matter for the police."

Ardern told Radio New Zealand that when it came to New Zealand's legislation and potential security responses, there was "no way" for the Government to come to the aid of Kiwis in Syria.

"Ultimately, there was strong travel advice: you do not travel to Syria. There is no way for us to give any support, regardless of circumstance, to anyone who is there," she said.

"Putting aside, of course, the legality of engaging with a terrorist organisation, that strong travel advice was 'do not go'."

Unlike other countries like Australia and the UK, New Zealand does not have specific legislation on removing citizenship from people with dual citizenship.

"What we are all predominantly governed by is the fact that countries cannot deem their citizens stateless," Ardern said.

"So you cannot essentially remove citizenship and leave someone with no state or place of residence ... that's something that actually has general application in international law."

The prime minister's spokesman told Stuff that "New Zealand does not have diplomatic representation in Syria and the ability of the Government to assist New Zealand citizens is severely limited".

"New Zealand is a party to the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, and the Government takes its obligations under that Convention very seriously," he said.

STATELESS AFTER STANDING WITH SYRIA

UK-born 19-year-old Shamima Begum, who has just given birth, joined Islamic State (Isis) four years ago.

She wants to go home, but she is unable to because she has been rendered stateless.

Britain has controversially stripped the teenager, who has just given birth, of her citizenship on security grounds, which has triggered a row over the ramifications of leaving a young mother and child to fend for themselves in a war zone.

KIWIS IN SYRIA

A 2018 Stuff investigation confirmed that New Zealand military have been secretly operating at a base in the Middle East where the air war against Isis is planned and launched.

Former Prime Minister John Key was asked on TV3's The Nation in September 2016 whether New Zealand spies were helping with air strikes against Isis.

Key said that "our intelligence guys do work, not in Syria, but they do work in Iraq. But by definition, these things again are always very broad. Because people are in lots of different locations."

In 2015, Kitteridge told Key there was "presumably" a rise in the number of New Zealand women travelling to the Syria and Iraq to become Jihadi brides.

"It's difficult to see what they do when they go. We definitely have intelligence that they went. Whether they are going to fight or whether they are going to support other fighters is not clear, but it's a real concern that they would go at all."

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