Immigration

The ‘go home’ benefit that isn’t

Assistance for struggling migrants will continue, but tensions within the Coalition are limiting how much is being done

A 12-week form of social welfare assistance will kick in next month and take the place of Civil Defence Emergency Management (CDEM) food packets and vouchers.

CDEM assistance is one of the few forms of help left to migrants, but is being scaled back and will end by July. 

A $37.6m programme administered by a yet-to-be-named NGO will take its place. Cash will not be provided, but assistance could include vouchers to help people pay for food, household goods, blankets, hot water bottles, over-the-counter medication, accommodation, utilities, petrol and pre-paid phone cards. Eligibility and suitability would be assessed every four weeks.

Embedded within the official announcement are political tensions that have been blamed for the Government's reluctance to grant migrants social welfare benefits.

"This is what you throw beggars on the street."

Minister for the Community and Voluntary sector Poto Williams said the package would "provide short-term assistance until they [migrants] find means of supporting themselves in New Zealand or are able to return home". 

NZ First leader and Foreign Minister Winston Peters said foreign nationals should depart New Zealand as soon as possible if they couldn't support themselves here.

“There are a number of foreign nationals in New Zealand on temporary visas who, due to Covid-19, have found themselves in a tight spot.

“Nearly 60,000 foreign nationals have departed New Zealand since March. We have been working with foreign missions since April asking them to assist their citizens, including with repatriation efforts, and the New Zealand Government has an expectation that they provide ongoing support for their citizens."

Mangere East Family Services CEO Peter Sykes said the announcement was "nice", but a lot of economic damage had already been done to families from the lack of assistance early on in the crisis.

"This is what you throw beggars on the street," he said. 

"A lot of migrants won't even pick it [the assistance] up. It's too much paperwork and it's not actually what they need. What they need to know is that they've got a roof over their head and they're treated with some respect.

"I still feel like we've let them down. We brought them here to work. We're complaining there's not enough workers in the rural areas and the hospitality areas and then we just leave them in limbo."

'Are we just waiting for them to disappear?'

Out-of-work migrants have found themselves in a tough position after both the pandemic and lockdown led to a wave of unemployment within the tourism and hospitality sectors. The extent of the problem isn't even fully known to Government.

Unemployed migrants aren't counted in official jobseeker numbers and Newsroom has been told a figure attached to the press release - that 20,000 migrants were in need of assistance - was an estimate arrived at by assuming the unemployment rate amongst all temporary visa holders was similar to that of the general population.

Unable to access social welfare, fly home, or change employers, industries or regions (because their visas are often tied to all three) some have had to work for lentils or live under looming threat of eviction for not paying their rent. In Queenstown alone, 5592 foreign nationals were registered for CDEM assistance.

The Government has come in for criticism from union groups, migrant groups, community groups and even former finance minister Stephen Joyce for not enacting provisions that allow it to grant benefits to jobless migrants during an epidemic. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said meagre provisions of beans didn't meet her expectations of CDEM assistance and she wanted a longer-term solution. The Greens wanted the Government to go further, but they are not in Cabinet. NZ First has signalled its caucus was opposed to migrant benefits and that the "Christian" way to help out-of-work migrants was to send them home.

However, with a pandemic raging beyond our borders and only a small number of international flights getting through, it is widely accepted behind the scenes - by ministers of all stripes - that it would be both impossible and unethical to send all migrants home. Especially if they had to return to countries where Covid-19 was still in full swing.

Queenstown's Mayor Jim Boult has said 'going home' might be a solution for a certain class of working holiday visa holder, but it wasn't for many others who had made a life here. 

Sykes believed if the Government took measures like changing visa conditions upfront it would have more of a pay-off for the country long-term than simply providing "in-kind" or voucher assistance.

"Just giving them phone cards and those sort of token things, it doesn't answer the sort of core [question] ... are we just sort of waiting for them to somehow, I don't know, slip under the counter or disappear?"

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