The immigration breakthrough that wasn’t

Lobby groups thought they'd succeeded in their mission to let skilled workers who had been stranded overseas get back into the country - but they were wrong

A press release from primary industry lobby groups had to be retracted on Friday after an announcement they had expected on a way for overseas temporary migrants to return to New Zealand never materialised.

DairyNZ and Federated Farmers released - then retracted - a press statement welcoming back the temporary workers 'locked out' of the country, after the Government instead announced a visa extension for people here on visitor visas.

"Federated Farmers and DairyNZ are pleased the Government’s immigration changes announced today will provide clarity to migrants and farmers, enabling them to plan for the future," the later-retracted press release said.

"The changes mean some farm employers nationwide will welcome home migrants and their families after months overseas."

But when they realised the Government had not, in fact, decided to allow those migrants stuck overseas back into the country for those farms, the organisations had to recall their statement.

Sources connected to Government and primary industries had been told a breakthrough agreement had been reached on a pathway that would eventually lead to some migrant workers being allowed back into the country. They alleged this was all set to be announced on Friday.

So, when the Government instead announced a modest set of visitor visa changes on Friday afternoon, these groups pounced to congratulate and celebrate the breakthrough compromise - not noticing it hadn't been reached.

A spokesman for Immigration Minister Kris Fa'afoi said there had been "no plan to issue any other announcement beyond the visitor visa changes on Friday.

"Further work is happening in a number of areas around adjustments and additions to immigration settings and the minister should have more to say in due course."

A spokeswoman for DairyNZ referred all requests for comment on the retracted press release to the Immigration Minister's office.

The alleged compromise was that another group would be formed within government and given the power to decide which groups of offshore temporary migrants would be allowed back in. 

The group would have also been responsible for ironing out other practicalities around these moves including what, if any, extra quarantine space might be needed. It is not known why an agreement to go ahead with this wasn't reached on Friday.

In its retracted press release Federated Farmers said the supposed government announcement had "several layers of complexity". 

"We strongly advise migrants and their employers to understand the rules and confirm if they meet the exemption criteria before they submit applications."

Newsroom reported on issues surrounding these 'locked out' workers in May, June and July.

Many of them have lived here for years, but weren't able to return thanks to strict border restrictions that only allowed citizens and permanent residents through.

Infrastructure projects with major overseas workforces like Transmission Gully were badly affected as were some primary industry employers who have traditionally struggled to recruit Kiwis willing to work in remote rural areas.

During the initial stages of lockdown the Government didn't rule out letting these workers back in, but also expressed reservations about whether doing so could further compound an expected spike in unemployment.

However in recent months employers have piled on the pressure, with many residents and citizens unwilling or unable to take up the roles some of these migrants left behind. 

"We are having different groups on Facebook and WhatsApp and people are having so much depressions.

It has caused even more issues for the temporary migrants themselves. Darshan Shah, 28, was locked out of the country after the borders closed during his brief trip to India. He worked as a baker in Opotiki and had lived here for five years.

Both his landlord and employer have expressed concerns about when he'll be able to return. Shah left important personal documents and possessions in his rented unit. His employer hasn't been able to find another worker in the area who would be willing to wake up at 3am every weekday to start work at a bakery. 

"They [the Government] just keep saying 'we want to see [offshore migrants] come back', but they're doing nothing and it has been more than five months," Shah said.

"They're just working on policy. Always saying 'quarantine issue', 'quarantine issue'. We are ready to pay for the full cost of quarantine, so what's wrong with the Government?

"I just don't understand."

Another temporary visa holder stuck in India, Monika Rana, said the situation had taken a serious mental health toll on her and others in her position. 

She has tried to apply for a border exception 13 times.

"We are having different groups on Facebook and WhatsApp and people are having so much depressions.

"Even one person has tried to commit suicide two times and that was so devastating."

In recent months Rana had watched on as other temporary migrants from her village were allowed back into places like Canada.

"We have given all the options....we are ready to follow all the rules and regulations.

"If we are not able to fulfil whatever the rules and regulations that are implemented on us then we are ready to get deported as well.

"Still we are not getting any response."

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Iain MacLeod
IMMagine Australia and New Zealand
7 September 2020
Unfortunately, this and previous Governments treat immigration and as something of an economic after thought and not part of any core economic or social planning in terms of skills alleviation, development or providing businesses with the skills/labour they cannot recruit locally. As someone who has been working in this area for 31 years most Governments think about migration as an adjunct to other portfolio decision making but I have never witnessed such an absence of leadership in the immigration portfolio as the past three years - long before anyone had heard of the Coronavirus. Many of us were hoping, and continue to hope, that the usually very competent and respected Mr Fa'afoi might bring some order to the chaos that is the immigration portfolio and immigration department. Perhaps after the election the Teachers, veterinarians, ICT specialists and other highly skilled migrants we represent that are sitting overseas with work visas in hand and jobs still in place in NZ, will be given the entry they deserve for the sake of the schools and businesses that simply cannot fill these vacancies locally.

Not holding my breath...


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