Parties within Cabinet are in disagreement on how we should ‘be kind’ to struggling migrants

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wants a solution for temporary migrants who have found themselves locked out of the country, but her coalition partner believes it is more ‘Christian’ to send people packing and keep them out.

The Prime Minister said she wanted temporary migrants to be let back in before border exemptions for a small number of skilled infrastructure, aviation, and film industry personnel – who have been allowed to skip the lockdown – were expanded further.

“I do want to make sure that we address that issue [migrants caught outside the country] before we see an opening up of the exemptions regime, because I do think that will raise inequity and issues of fairness.

“There are some individuals in some really sticky situations.”

Covid-19 has thrown up a raft of migration issues. A hard border closure locked out migrants on temporary visas, some of whom have made a life here and lived in the country for almost a decade.

“If it’s possible for us to assist them to go home then that to me is a very Christian thing to do. “

Within our borders, migrants have been among the first to be laid off. A government decision not to use s64 of the Social Security Act left them unable to rely on benefits during lockdown. Some have lived on handouts of beans, others have found themselves sleeping on the street.

NZ First MP Shane Jones sympathised with the plight of many migrants, but said he believed the Government should pay for their flights home and not let those trapped outside back in.

“There is a humanitarian duty upon me as a minister. Something akin to having a Christian disposition towards the struggle that a lot of the migrants find themselves in right now.

“My overarching feeling is that they should go home. And if it’s possible for us to assist them to go home then that to me is a very Christian thing to do.

“Secondly, the difficulty that I have, on behalf of NZ First, with opening the border for visa-holding migrants to come back to New Zealand is I don’t see why I should agree to that if we’ve got legions of Kiwis who have now been dislocated from the labour market and are themselves looking for jobs.”

‘I don’t want to go back’

Javed* spent three years building up his career here in the hospitality sector and is watching it slip away week by week as he waits out the government wage subsidy holed up in a Queenstown hostel. 

When he came here he carried the weight of his family’s dreams and aspirations on his shoulders. His father, a civil servant, retired from his job and received a pension payout, then spent half of it ($17,000) paying for his son’s education in New Zealand.

As coronavirus deaths mount in India, his parents have told him to stay put. He is afraid he will catch the virus if he has to leave.

“I don’t want to go back to India right now because the coronavirus is really really big thing in India, like 70,000 people sick and the thing is if I travel by air it is more likely to catch me.

“So that’s why I just want to stay and find another job and make my career here.”

Trained in Queenstown at the Southern Institute of Technology, he moved to Lake Tekapo, started work as a kitchen hand then worked his way up to become a chef de partie. 

Three days before lockdown, his employer told them they would be shutting the business down, but would keep employees paid via the Government’s wage subsidy scheme.

Queenstown was where he first fell in love with New Zealand and thought it would be a safe place to wait out the lockdown.

He realised things had changed when he got there and saw someone completely zipped up in their sleeping bag in the middle of a Four Square parking lot. 

“[That’s] never happened here before. It’s really cold, like, five degrees in the night.”

With out-of-work migrants, students, and other travellers packed in 24-7, the hostel he relocated to got dirtier by the day and its kitchen became unusable.

Most were unemployed and many were ineligible to take up new jobs in other industries due to visa restrictions. 

Amongst this, Javed was hatching a plan to survive. He knows the wage subsidy will run out and that he will not get another job in the hospitality industry. 

He wanted to pivot and change careers, this time to the dairy industry, which has a shortfall of 1000 workers.

“I applied [for a] few jobs, but I can’t be sure about anything because it’s totally on employers.”

Going ‘cold turkey’

Migrant advocates have argued out-of-work migrants are more likely to move between regions and switch professions, while locally-born workers will hold out longer for a job that won’t require them to retrain. 

They assert critical skills gaps will remain even with high unemployment, and migrants will be more willing to take on those roles. 

Those facts aren’t denied by Jones and NZ First, they just think this is the only time our country will be able to do what they have been advocating for years.

“In many cases the work ethic of our migrant community is first-rate. We need look no further than the Filipino community and the long hours that they work in our retirement villages and in our farms,” Jones said.

“I accept that it’s a big ask for a lot of city slickers to want to go and work on farms, but either we go back to the John Key economic development model of unfettered immigration, escalating house prices and low productivity or we go ‘cold turkey’ and accept that those historic pillars are not sustainable in a post-Covid environment.”

As for granting migrants benefits under the Social Security Act – even while they waited for a flight home – Jones said such a decision would have to be approved by NZ First’s caucus. 

“We just don’t have boundless resources and there’s 300,000 odd migrants in the country at the moment and that would be an astonishing amount of dough to have to put them all on the dole.

“So I personally would not be agreeable to that.”

*This migrant requested an alias be used.

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