‘Just tell us’: Migrants in limbo as coalition dithers

Labour and New Zealand First are delaying a painful call on either lifting or cutting New Zealand's annual residency visa limit. Neither will reveal their stance ahead of a crucial pre-election Cabinet decision, while the Greens want the limits removed completely. Meanwhile, migrants living in limbo for months are increasingly desperate for clarity.

Sarah* has been waiting for more than a year for the New Zealand Government to answer one question: can she stay or should she take herself and her three children back to Sri Lanka? 

"This is one residency case for them, but it's a whole life for me," Sarah said.

"If New Zealand doesn't want us, all right, just tell us now."

Her application for residency is currently sitting in a pile of skilled migrant residence applications that was 26,000-strong at the start of December, a backlog so large it has had some drawing parallels to a situation in the early 2000s when 20,000 residency applications had to be “lapsed”

"I have three kids and me but I can't plan anything at the moment, I've never been back home since I came to New Zealand."

Sarah is a skilled migrant and a former intensive care nurse with 20 years' experience. Her work in New Zealand supporting people with disabilities requires her to spend several nights a week at a care facility to provide around-the-clock care. 

"I have three kids and me but I can't plan anything at the moment, I've never been back home since I came to New Zealand...If I know I can live here permanently I can arrange my career progress and all other things."

"It's really hard, it really impacts on my career as well you know, all the time I am stressful, my mind is stressful."

The pathway to residence that she has chosen to take is now followed by three out of five migrants, according to statistics released by Stats NZ on Monday.

Backlog as 'go slow' drags on

Immigration lawyers and advocates have alleged the backlog of residencies is a 'go slow' to accommodate a decrease in the New Zealand Residence Planning Range (NZRP) from 47,000 to 37,000 residencies per year and pre-election promises to reduce migrant numbers.

While the NZRP planning range has been revised downwards by 15 percent, the number of work and student visas issued has increased 25 percent. 

And each person on a work visa has less of a shot at securing residency today than they would have had in the past.

In 2008 there were a potential 125,000 applicants on work visas for 47,000 residency visas: a ratio of 2.65 to one. Today that ratio sits at 7.84 to one. It has meant the number of unprocessed residency applications has almost quadrupled in the last two years, as this previous article reports and this chart shows:

The situation has been branded “unethical” by former Massey University Pro Vice Chancellor Paul Spoonley and Sense Partners economist Shamubeel Eaqub noted it had "real human costs" because New Zealand's intentions weren't being clearly communicated. 

"When you hire somebody on a working visa how do you know if they're going to be allowed to stay in three years' time?" he said.

"It's a completely ridiculous position for both the employer and the employee and their family and it's still not clear to me what the issue is."

Minister of Immigration Iain Lees-Galloway told Newsroom a decision on the NZRP planning target due at the end of last year would be decided by cabinet some time before the election. 

He has proposed three planning ranges, a cabinet paper on the subject noted some of those categories could be “uncapped”. 

"Arbitrary number"

The Greens are strident in their criticism of planning ranges, which spokeswoman Golriz Ghahraman termed an “arbitrary number”. 

They are at the opposite end of the debate to New Zealand First and Labour who campaigned on cutting migrant numbers. The Greens want residency applications decided on principle rather than rationed by number. 

Ghahraman said numbers in the planning range were just there to alleviate the fears of people who didn't want more residencies granted. 

"It's not right that people suffer....their status is in limbo for years and years," Ghahraman said.

"I can't say what's happening behind the scenes, but I think, on the face of it, they [Labour and NZ First] both campaigned on cutting immigration numbers by using set numbers that we say are arbitrary," she said.

Ghahraman said she had met with Lees-Galloway many times about this issue and he was well aware of the party's stance on the issue. 

"In terms of putting caps on residency numbers we disagree, and he is well aware of that."

NZ First missing in action

Suddenly, New Zealand First are less than forthcoming on their views on migration.

NZ First have refused interviews with Newsroom on immigration and said their spokesman was not “available for a broad interview on immigration”. 

They instead provided a written statement on behalf of Immigration spokesman Clayton Mitchell.

“Immigration is a serious problem for New Zealand if we don’t get back to the basics. It’s about the people we need to contribute and build a resilient economy and stronger society, not just about the people who need us. Population growth and immigration need to work hand in hand and New Zealand First will work hard to make sure that happens,” the statement said.

To back NZ First’s record, a spokeswoman for the party pointed to recently released migration statistics where work and student visas vastly outstripped residence visas and which showed net migration running at over 43,000 in December, a figure higher than most of National’s nine years at the helm.

The same week that statement was sent, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters gave a speech to the house telling parliamentarians that a debate on the future population would be a "big thing" that would happen this year.

"It's important for New Zealanders to recognise this...we need a dialogue with the New Zealand people about our future population policy because the forecast of New Zealand's population by 2050 has got us there already."

*Sarah requested an alias be selected for this story.

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