Invisible Border Security: Vulnerabilities and Risks to New Zealand’s Resilience

Author: Johnson, Nikki1

Published in National Security Journal, 23 April 2024

DOI: 10.36878/nsj20240423.03 

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In New Zealand, border security mechanisms depend on input from a wide range of agencies and are supported by national security strategic efforts. New Zealand’s resilience in protecting itself from vulnerabilities and risks at the border requires an assurance that there are no gaps in these mechanisms. This article shows that there are in fact gaps in these mechanisms and highlights the invisibility of border security within the national security context. It points to a lack of awareness about how the extensive number of agencies involved contribute to border security. It reveals that governance of the complex border environment is currently beyond the bounds of possibility, and the alignment of strategic priorities for the large number of agencies with an interest in border outcomes is problematic. Furthermore, the collaboration between agencies requires more than formal arrangements. This article argues for the New Zealand Government to develop the concept of a Border Security Community — a concept that, if enacted, is likely to improve New Zealand’s resilience in protecting itself from vulnerabilities and risks at the border.


In these times of global uncertainty from war, climate change effects, and the recent pandemic, states are increasingly focusing on border security as a resilience measure. Border security measures are broadly similar across the globe, but each country tailors its approach to meet its specific security needs. In New Zealand, border security endeavours are undertaken by a wide range of agencies and support several multi-agency national security strategic efforts.1 Some agencies have operational responsibility for border security, with a mandate for enforcement (for example, New Zealand Customs Service and Ministry for Primary Industries); others have an interest in policy and regulatory matters linked to border security (for example, the Department of Internal Affairs). However, border security is currently undefined, and the lack of definition across New Zealand’s security strategies poses a challenge when considering it in the national security context.

This article utilises empirical research, including in-depth interviews conducted between June and August 2022, with seven employees from six agencies2 and New Zealand’s Border Executive Board, to address the question “How is border security understood in the New Zealand national security context, and what are the implications for the resilience of the border?” This article demonstrates there is a strong need, and therefore an opportunity, for further clarity on border security as a fundamental part of national security.

This article argues that the government does not consider the mechanisms3 of border security in their entirety. This situation renders border security work invisible within the National Security System. It also suggests that there is a disconnect between agency functions and agencies’ understanding of how they contribute to wider border security. Border security is managed through several other key priorities – a national security ‘system of systems’ – but does not exist as an entity in its own right; in this sense, in its current form, border security is everything and nothing. To remedy the situation, the article recommends using the new concept of the ‘Border Security Community’ to facilitate the adoption of a systems-thinking approach and to allow the extensive breadth of agencies to engage more productively. Further, it supports future conversations to enable a better understanding of border security, thereby improving New Zealand’s resilience from border vulnerabilities and risks.

Note that the use of the term ‘border security community’ is used in this article as a descriptive means to identify the collective of agencies identified by the author, who have a responsibility and/or interest in securing New Zealand’s borders. It is not currently recognised as a structural entity that exists. The capitalisation of the term used in the Conclusion reflects the movement from descriptive means to a tangible designation.

1 Nikki Johnson is a former Masters student at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University, Wellington, and a government employee. The author acknowledges Germana Nicklin for her continued encouragement, guidance, and patience. Contact may be made with the author via the Managing Editor at