Week in Review

Desperation over partnership visa delays

Visa applicants protest outside Immigration NZ’s Mumbai office, and Kiwis head back to India, as lengthy processing delays put strain on relationships, finances and mental health. Laura Walters reports.

New Zealand residents and their partners are suffering mental health issues and some are returning to India due to lengthy delays in partnership visa processing.

High application volumes, coupled with the closure of offshore processing offices, have led to a massive backlog in the processing of partnership visa applications, particularly those coming from India.

Newsroom has received correspondence and stories from hundreds of applicants who have been trying to get partnership visas over the past year.

Many of the applications have not been assigned to case officers months on, with some waiting more than five months.

Applicants who followed up with Immigration NZ were told average wait times were between five and seven months for non-urgent applications.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway has repeatedly expressed his displeasure at the delays.

Meanwhile, Immigration NZ has changed its systems, and added staff, in an effort to improve processing times.

From this week, all new partnership visa applications from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal will be dealt with by the Hamilton office. Meanwhile, staff in the Mumbai office would be working to clear their backlog.

Residents leaving New Zealand

However, these attempts to deal with the significant delays have come too late for Ravjeer Singh and his wife Gagandeep Kaur.

Singh, a permanent resident living in Auckland, has decided to leave New Zealand after 11 years in order to be with his wife.

Kaur applied for a partnership visa in February but there had not been any progress, and it was taking a toll on their relationship and mental health. Singh said he was also unable to focus on his job.

Singh bought a house in the south east suburb of Flatbush in 2017, where he and Kaur planned to live. Now he was putting the house back on the market as he prepared to permanently leave the country.

Singh is not alone in his decision to leave New Zealand, as frustration and troubles mount over processing backlogs. Newsroom is aware of other permanent residents, who did not want to be named, leaving the country to be with their spouses.

An urgent situation

One man, who wanted to remain anonymous, said he was becoming desperate for his wife to join him in New Zealand, as her pregnancy progressed.

The Palmerston North man, who is a permanent resident and has lived in New Zealand for nine years, said he and his wife applied for a partnership visa in March, after their wedding.

The man returned to New Zealand in May to continue work as a self-employed taxi driver, in order to pay his mortgage.

Five months on, his wife’s application was yet to be assigned to a case officer, and Immigration NZ told them it was not an urgent application.

“I don’t know where to go, I have no idea what I can do."

The couple was becoming anxious as time was running out in which the pregnant woman would be able to safely travel to New Zealand. The doctor told her it would be risky to fly after seven months.

Meanwhile, the man said his wife had little support in India, and she was being taunted by people who said her husband no longer wanted her.

This was taking a toll on her mental health, he said.

In order to progress the application, the couple had paid thousands of dollars for the services of an agent in India, and had spent about three weeks gathering supporting documentation, including 22GB of wedding photos and videos.

The man and his wife had emailed Immigration NZ repeatedly, but had been told the application was not urgent, and they would have to wait. He had also tried to contact the immigration minister.

“I don’t know where to go, I have no idea what I can do,” he said.

Delays 'not good enough'

Others had similar, desperate stories and said they were frustrated at the lack of progress and information. (See more stories below.)

These frustrations have led to protests outside Immigration NZ’s Mumbai office.

Men at the demonstration last week held signs saying things like, ‘NZ Immigration destroys families’ and ‘Stop the separation of families’.

National Party immigration spokesperson Stuart Smith said the Government was not holding up its end of the bargain with these skilled migrants, who wanted to bring their partners to New Zealand.

“This is not all about helping migrants out, it’s actually about helping our economy out. We need these people to fill jobs that we can’t fill ourselves.”

If those migrants weren’t happy and settled, they would go elsewhere, which was a huge loss for New Zealand, he said.

“It’s not as though we have no need for them, we actually do.

“This is not all about helping migrants out, it’s actually about helping our economy out. We need these people to fill jobs that we can’t fill ourselves.”

Smith described the minister as being ‘asleep at the wheel’, as the Government’s policy objective to bring in fewer migrants and the shutting of visa processing offices coincided to create the current delays and backlog.

When Immigration NZ and Lees-Galloway did identify these issues, they were too slow to act, he said.

Smith called on the Government to adequately resource visa processing, and to be upfront with applicants about policy objectives and timeframes.

If the delays continued, New Zealand risked reputational damage in other countries, he said.

The immigration minister has spoken about improving visa processing practices, and timeframes being one of his top priorities.

Iain Lees-Galloway (left) has expressed his displeasure to Immigration NZ head Greg Patchell (right). Photo: Lynn Grieveson

In a brief statement to Newsroom, he said he made it clear to MBIE chief executive Carolyn Tremain and Immigration NZ deputy chief executive Greg Patchell that current visa processing times were not good enough.

They were now reporting to the minister regularly.

After working to address these issues, processing times were beginning to decrease, Lees-Galloway said, adding that he was keeping the pressure on.

Partnership applications by the numbers

At the end of last week, Immigration NZ had 8408 temporary partnership applications on-hand across all offices - more than 3000 of those were for partners of workers. The department was dealing with a further 6419 partnership residence applications.

As the Hamilton office was now the partnership hub, the majority of both temporary and resident partnership visa applications were being processed through this office, as of Monday.

On Friday, there were 3372 temporary partnership applications in Hamilton that had not been allocated to an immigration officer. There were an additional 4364 unallocated partnership residence applications.

And as of August 29, the Mumbai office had 1401 temporary partnership visa applications on hand. This included work and visitor visas based on partnership with a New Zealand citizen resident, work or student. Of these applications, 1230 were unallocated.

In addition, there were about 1430 visitor visa applications for partners of workers and students. Of these, approximately 1380 had not been allocated.

For context, Immigration NZ made over 4400 temporary partnership visa decisions in July. Depending on the type of partnership visa, average delay times currently vary between 62 days and eight months.

To address the delays, Mumbai recently increased its number of staff by 20.

The Hamilton office had also grown significantly over the past 18 months as it establishes itself as the primary Immigration NZ partnership hub, going from fewer than 40 staff to 130. The office would continue to grow to a capacity of about 170 staff.

Immigration NZ assistant general manager Peter Elms said the expansion reflected the move away from offshore locations to larger onshore hubs, creating more jobs for New Zealanders.

The department also regularly reviewed on-hand partnership visa applications and prioritised low-risk applications. However, applications requiring additional information or further checks took longer. Those coming from the Punjab region were considered high-risk

“While INZ is committed to processing visas as fast as practicable, the right level of scrutiny must be applied to ensure the right decisions are made for New Zealand,” Elms said.

A collection of brief stories – in their own words

Name of person in NZ: Raman Singh, citizen, here for 17 years

Name of applicant: Navjot Kaur

Visa application date: March 14, 2019

Problems faced due to delays: The long delay and separation is taking toll on our relationship and mental health, and I am unable to focus on my job and wife is always emotional

Navjot Kaur and Raman Singh are one of many couples experiencing stress and anxiety over partnership visa delays. Photo: Supplied.

Name of person in NZ: Harvinder Singh, permanent resident, here for eight years

Name of applicant: Manpreet Aulakh

Visa application date: March 3, 2019

Problems faced due to delays: In-laws are thinking that I don't want to take my wife to New Zealand, and my brother in-law was murdered recently so we are facing a lot of emotional and mental trauma. I have a small business in New Zealand and I'm facing issues to concentrate with all the delays and stress it has caused.

Manpreet Aulakh's parents think her husband Harvinder Singh no longer wants his wife to join him in New Zealand. Photo: Supplied

Name of person in NZ: Harjit Singh, permanent resident, here eight years

Name of applicant: Ranjit Kaur

Visa application date: April 24, 2019

Problems faced due to delays: We are both over 40 and want to have a child due to biological clock ticking. My wife wants me to come back to India, but I have a job in New Zealand and this would affect my financial situation. We are stressed because of the delays, and it's affecting our mental health

Ranjit Kaur (left) and Harjit Singh are both in their 40s and want to have children but the clock is ticking. Photo: Supplied

Name of person in NZ: Amninder Singh, permanent resident, here nine years

Name of applicant: Jasbir Kaur

Visa application date: March 15, 2019

Problems faced due to delays: My parents are in New Zealand and my wife is in India alone and suffering from mental health issues due to the stress these delays have caused. I'm not able to concentrate on my work. The time difference also means we are not able to communicate effectively and properly.

Amninder Singh (left) and Jasbir Kaur are unable to communicate effectively and properly because of the time difference. Photo: Supplied

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