Despite policy promises designed to radically slash migration, numbers remain high and applications for residency continue to rise. Laura Walters reports.

The high volume of incoming residency applications is outstripping the Government’s lowered targets, as part of its revised residency programme.

A high-priority briefing paper to the immigration minister shows thousands more people are applying for residency than the number the Government has agreed to accommodate in its new targets.

The new targets are an attempt to turn down the tap, and refocus the objectives of the residence programme as New Zealand continues to grapple with the direction of its immigration plan and tension between skills shortages and demands on already stretched infrastructure.

This continuous stream of people knocking at New Zealand’s door comes despite a coalition government of two parties that campaigned on significantly cutting migration.

For New Zealand First, it was a promise to slash annual net migration to just 10,000, from a recent (revised) high of almost 64,000 in 2016. Labour, meanwhile, estimated its planned changes to immigration settings would reduce immigration by up to 30,000.

Since coming into power, Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway has pivoted away from talk about drastic migration cuts, towards quality of skills and stamping out exploitation.

And while the Government has made some changes to migration settings, so far policy changes have been largely tinkering at the edges, and have not led to any significant drop-off in migration.

Annual net migration has remained consistently high since 2014. In April, it was 55,800.

The slight easing over the past couple of years is in line with official forecasts, which predict net migration to drop to 57,000 in the September 2020 year, and is attributed to a continuation of the downward trend in net non-citizen arrivals, as well as an increase in net New Zealand citizen departures.

Resident applications outstrip Cabinet targets

Briefing documents obtained by Newsroom under the Official Information Act show the number of people looking to become New Zealand residents is not reducing in line with the Government’s plans.

In a May briefing to Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway, officials warned the volume of incoming applications was greater than the number of people which may be approved under the Government’s new 18-month New Zealand Residency Programme planning range.

The range, which was set by this government for the first time in February, allows for 50,000 to 60,000 people to gain residency between July 2018 and December 2019.

The former National government set the planning range at 85,000 to 95,000 in 2016 for the two years to July 2018. Prior to that, the range had been set at 90,000 to 100,000.

When the Government revised the targets, it also changed the visa ratios to 51 percent skilled workers, 38 percent family, and 11 percent humanitarian. (From 60 percent skilled workers, 33 percent family, and 7 percent humanitarian.)

Between July 2018 and April 2019, immigration New Zealand received residence applications for 50,358 people. However, the maximum number of people that could be approved under the residence programme targets for the period was 33,333.

In recent years, between 80 percent and 95 percent of those applications were made by people already in New Zealand on other forms of visas.

The tightening of the skilled migrant category in 2016 and 2017 saw a downturn in the number of incoming skilled migrant applications – from 10,521 applications in the five months to September 2016, down to 5779 in the five months to December 2018.

Despite the decrease in skilled migrant application volumes, the number of people applying for residence is still tracking higher than the maximum number of approvals agreed by Cabinet, officials said.

The changes to the skilled migrant category had also seen a change in the top three occupations.

Chef (6.3 percent), retail manager (4.7 percent) and cafe or restaurant manager (4.1 percent) were the top three approved occupations prior to the changes. Now those occupations are registered aged care nurse (10 percent), early childhood teacher (3 percent) and software engineer (2.5 percent).

Further processing delays

Immigration New Zealand officials said while the number of incoming applications were outstripping the planning ranges, the department expected it would likely only approve residency applications for 50,000 to 55,000 people by the end of the year.

“However, this means there will likely be an increase in residence applications on hand, and also decision timeliness.”

Immigration New Zealand has been struggling with processing delays, across a number of visa categories, in recent months.

Student visa delays have been firmly in the spotlight, with education providers expressing concern about potential losses in the millions, and Education New Zealand warning the Government about potential reputational damages.

The minister’s briefing documents show the delay issues are more widespread.

Long-term planning over short-term numbers

In a written statement, Lees-Galloway said the Government was more focused on longer-term labour market planning than short-term numbers.

“The work we are doing is about filling genuine skills shortages in the short term, with a longer-term plan to join up our businesses, regions, and education system to fill skills shortages with New Zealand workers.”

When asked why the number of residency applications remained so high, despite Labour and New Zealand First’s promises to tighten immigration, he said: “New Zealand’s economy is strong and we are a desirable place to live. These factors continue to make New Zealand an attractive destination for potential immigrants.”

Lees-Galloway reiterated that,while residence applications were “on the high side”, total applications approved would remain within the range set by Cabinet.

From 2020, the residence programme will refocus its objectives.

The Government’s new objectives are described as: maximise the contribution of the programme to the economic and social wellbeing of New Zealand and New Zealanders by attracting skilled workers and business migrants; reunify the families of New Zealand residents and citizens; and meet international and humanitarian commitments.

It also aims to manage the overall residence numbers through controlling each component of the programme separately.

Lees-Galloway said the Government would be considering its next steps for the residence programme, alongside other immigration changes.

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