Immigration

The ‘do nothing’ migration tactic

An immigration announcement is being panned as unfair and 'bordering on racist' in its attempts to divine economic worthiness. An economist says it's time for the Government to change its approach.

News that heavily subsidised film productions and similarly privileged yachtsmen will take priority over migrants who have been paying taxes for years has been greeted with anger by those who have been locked out of the country.

After weeks of pressure surrounding a botched quarantine at the QT for Avatar film workers, and other high-profile border exceptions, the Government released a policy around what criteria it would use to let non-New Zealand citizens and permanent residents through the border.

The Government has been highly criticised for leaving the issue of people stranded outside our borders largely untouched in their latest announcement. Only New Zealand residents and citizens, or people who have been granted exceptions, are allowed to return. 

"How could they [Government] tell whether the last member of the Avatar film crew was as important for that whole effort as somebody coming in to meet their pregnant fiancée?

The set of exceptions will fall into 'short-term' and 'long-term' tiers. People in both will need to prove a 'unique' experience, set of skills, or connection to a vital Government initiative of some kind.

Having an income that was double the median ($106,000) could also help you get through. Successful candidates will get to take up one of the 228 rooms a day that the country has been able to secure for quarantine.

New Zealand Initiative Chief Economist Eric Crampton said border policy had turned into a "system that requires [people] to prove economic merit to the minister or make special pleading because they've managed to get their case in the newspapers". 

That shouldn't be how a country's border policy was run, he said.  

"How could they [Government] tell whether the last member of the Avatar film crew was as important for that whole effort as somebody coming in to meet their pregnant fiancée?

"So long as your way in is safe it shouldn't be up to the minister to be picking those winners."

Migrant Workers Association spokeswoman Anu Kaloti said the new guidelines were "bordering on racist" in the way they carved out a neat set of exemptions that made it impossible for most migrant workers from Asia to return even if they posed no greater risk to public safety than others who had already been allowed in.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said the Government was working on a longer-term border strategy and "exploring how we can create an isolation system that could support further opening of New Zealand’s borders, for example for current holders of temporary work visas and international students".

Lawyer Aaron Martin criticised the lack of any announcement of how the country's quarantining capacity would be scaled up.

The thinking behind the announcement appeared to be "if you do nothing for long enough the problem will go away".

"This is a very clear message to those people. Basically we don't need you because your job can be done by a New Zealander."

Time to change tack

Crampton said we had always distinguished between 'worthy' and 'unworthy' candidates for migration, but the small number of people allowed through in the current situation had made that process a lot more unfair. 

Small-scale exceptions for infrastructure workers - like those brought in to fix the capital's water system - were justifiable under stricter alert levels, but not with the looser restrictions in place today.

"What other industries or businesses would want to come here if we could set things up under a principle of safe entry at the border rather than 'convince the minister at the border'?"

It was also impossible to scale up a system based purely on a set of case-by-case ministerial exceptions.

The solution was to flip that whole equation on its head and make migrants, businesses and accommodation providers prove they posed no health risk. 

"What other industries or businesses would want to come here if we could set things up under a principle of safe entry at the border rather than 'convince the minister at the border'?"

People from Taiwan or the Pacific Islands might be able to enter immediately due to their Covid-free status. For others, they would only be let into the country if they had made (and paid for) quarantining arrangements with an accredited set of hotels.

Hotels and accommodation providers would have to get accredited by proving they could quarantine people safely.

With larger numbers of people coming in they would have a greater incentive to invest in better standards of quarantine themselves. 

And if there were too few hotel spots, room prices would rise and other accommodation providers would be incentivised to get into the market.

It would have to be accompanied by a zero-tolerance policy for bubble breaches. The one Avatar worker who breached social isolation regulations would have been deported under such a scheme so that others were encouraged to strictly follow the rules.

'People are angry'

Kaloti said migrants locked out of the country were in an increasingly desperate situation.

Often they were paying multiple sets of bills in both countries while earning no income and trying to survive in a country they had made no plans to stay in.

"It's like very, very hopeless for them all around and then to see other people [like film-workers] being given priority over them. It's really, really unfair and unjust," Kaloti said. 

Immigration adviser Katy Armstrong said quarantining capacity had been stuck at the 250 rooms per day mark for too long. 

"It's just painful to watch this all be stuck like treacle just because everybody's been saying 'it's not my portfolio'."

A cabinet paper released alongside the announcement revealed one quarantine hotel in Christchurch had even been shut down (it will be re-opened to increase the nation's quarantining capacity). 

"It's becoming a cliche. We've got multiple hotels. [Unemployed] hospitality and tourism staff. Instead of receiving the benefit, why can't they be working on this project to make sure we have a really tight system?" she said. 

"I think it's long since time that the quarantine numbers are increased substantially to make sure we can balance the needs of the border to keep Covid out with the needs of people to get back into New Zealand.

"It's just painful to watch this all be stuck like treacle just because everybody's been saying 'it's not my portfolio'."

Multiple ministries are embroiled in border exception and quarantine policy. 

"They don't get reasons they just get that three line email: Do not reply. Do not pass go. You cannot get back into your house."

While quarantine is the responsibility of border authorities and the Ministry of Health, economic exceptions are within the realm of the Economic Development Minister.

Armstrong said we had always "cherry-picked" migrants, but that had to be balanced with doing what was fair. Right now many applications for exceptions were being declined within 10 minutes of people submitting them.

"They don't get reasons they just get that three line email: Do not reply. Do not pass go. You cannot get back into your house."

Although the number of people waiting to re-enter the country appeared large, it was not unmanageable as many did not expect to come in right away.

They just wanted to know they were in the queue.

She estimated adding an extra 700 hotel rooms to the total stock of over 3200 would be enough to allow temporary migrants in the harshest situations to come home.

"You can't keep people separated from their jobs and their lives where they have the legal right to work in New Zealand at the invitation of New Zealand.

"They didn't get those visas by stealing them. They got those visas because they're clients of Immigration New Zealand and they were granted those visas."

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.

Comments

Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: contact@newsroom.co.nz. Thank you.

With thanks to our partners