Comment

Doing the right thing on immigration

Some things are just the right thing to do. There were examples last week from the UK government and our own Government - but there is further to go, especially on fair immigration policy, writes Peter Dunne.

Two important events took place last week to cleanse some of the painful memories of aspects of New Zealand’s recent and not so recent history.

First, was the British High Commissioner’s expression of regret on behalf of her country to local Gisborne iwi that nine of their ancestors had been killed during their encounters with Captain Cook in October 1769. This expression was an important overdue recognition that while deaths of this nature may not have been all that uncommon during eighteenth century pre-colonial encounters, they have left scars which do not deserve to be overlooked the way they have been in most of the historical accounts we have been brought up on. Facing up to this is especially important at a time when we are marking the 250th anniversary of Cook’s arrival in New Zealand, and when there is renewed debate about the consequences that unleashed upon our country.

It is particularly significant, too, that the British Government should have been prepared to move in this direction at all. After all, it does not have a great record in recognising the harshness of some of its behaviour as a colonial overlord in earlier times.

The Irish, for example, are still waiting for an apology for the brutal execution of the leaders (the fathers of the modern republic) of the 1916 Easter Uprising and the many atrocities committed by British forces in Ireland over the years. India has waited over a century for a British apology for the Amritsar massacre; and, there is what former United Nations Under-Secretary General Shashi Tharoor has described as  Britain’s “historical amnesia” over the British concentration camps during the South African War, where just under 30 percent of the internees died of neglect and starvation. And yet, as recently as 2005, Gordon Brown, two years away at that point from becoming Prime Minister, proclaimed that "the days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over".

Against that background, the British High Commissioner’s actions in Gisborne last week were a stunning achievement, and a reflection of the close relationship that endures between Britain and New Zealand.

Now it is to be hoped that that same closeness is evident when it comes to determining the future trade and political relationship between the two countries in the wake of Brexit, and that New Zealand is never again subject to the shameful discard it was when Britain originally joined Europe over 40 years ago. The post Brexit discussions will show whether Britain is truly seeking a new partnership, or whether the expression of regret was just a device to ease the way for the free trade agreement it will so desperately need once it divorces Europe.

Let's look at immigration policy and practice

Unrelated, but no less significant was the Government’s welcome announcement last week that it was removing the requirement that Quota Refugees from Africa and the Middle East regions must have family already living in New Zealand before they can be considered for resettlement here. This move abolishes a discrimination that has been in place under current immigration policy and while it is to be applauded, it is a timely reminder nonetheless that there are still many aspects of our immigration policy that are unfair or at best unevenly applied.

During my more than thirty years in Parliament, immigration cases consistently accounted for between two-thirds and three-quarters of my electorate workload. I came to the considered view during that time, under successive Labour- and National-led governments, that our immigration policy was essentially racist. While New Zealand’s approach was never as explicit or as total as Australia’s notorious “White Australia” policy that lasted until the advent of the Whitlam Government in 1972, the effect until comparatively recently was broadly the same.

In my experience, it was consistently more difficult to win cases (on behalf of constituents) for people coming from the Pacific, Asia, the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East and Africa, than it was for those from Britain, Europe, Canada and the United States.

In part, it was the policy, and in part it was the attitude of officials who were always more inherently suspicious of the cases of people who were not from the “white” countries. Appreciation of differing cultural norms was virtually zero, with applicants simply expected to fit the New Zealand template immediately, and to be treated with wariness and disdain if they did not.

Our policy needs to go further and allow all parents of NZ permanent residents and citizens an automatic right to short-term entry or residence, subject to the standard health and character requirements.

Refugees and parents of New Zealand residents from outside the “white” countries were usually the hardest cases to advance. This is despite most of the evidence which shows that migrants to New Zealand from refugee backgrounds often make the strongest of contributions to our society, enriching it in so many ways. Yet non-quota refugees’ stories were usually disbelieved – I was even asked on one occasion to get confirming evidence from authorities in Sadaam Hussein’s Iraq that they were in fact subjecting a couple seeking to join children here to the persecution they were claiming! At the same time, parents wanting to join children in New Zealand were always assumed to be harbouring illnesses that would prove costly to our health system, or, if they wished to make a short-term visit, that when the time came, they would just never go home.

Last week’s move was a small but significant step forward, but there is still a mighty long way to go to make the New Zealand immigration system truly fair and justly applied. One area where the Government could move relatively easily relates to parents. It has just restored the Parents’ Visa, but limited it to 1,000 applicants a year, who are financially independent. However, the change will have limited effect and is cold comfort to many migrants seeking family reunification, but who will not qualify under this policy.

Our policy needs to go further and allow all parents of New Zealand permanent residents and citizens an automatic right to short-term entry or residence, subject to the standard health and character requirements. This would deal in one fell swoop to the many cases of parents wanting to make short-term visits to see children or grandchildren, or attend family events like weddings, reunions, or funerals which arouse too many suspicions in the minds of immigration officials at present, and currently lead to so many disappointments when their applications are declined, or the events have passed by.

It would also make it easier for children wanting to bring elderly parents to New Zealand to look after them, thus easing the current problem of remittances to home countries, in Asia and the Pacific especially, as well as providing basic peace of mind to so many. It will not open the immigration floodgates, nor will it create significant burdens for the New Zealand taxpayer, because of the current restrictions on things like eligibility for superannuation.

Rather, it is simply the right thing to do.

Britain’s noble expression of regret to the descendants of Cook’s victims, and the Government’s encouraging immigration changes are worthwhile first steps, both holding the promise of more to come. 

Just as important, and the real test of the policy commitment in both cases, however, will be what comes next.      

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