The Government is setting New Zealand up for social and economic fallout by not giving migrants a stake in society, says an immigration expert

Migrants left uncertain of their futures may pose social and economic problems for New Zealand, warns an immigration law specialist.

Duncan Cotterill immigration lawyer Nicola Tiffen said there were thousands of people who wanted to contribute to and settle in New Zealand who had been left in the lurch.

She said by not giving this group a stake in society, New Zealand would lose out socially and financially.

“The concern is if you end up with a whole segment of society with no skin in the game, there’s no benefit for them to stay or contribute. That’s a concern from an economic and a societal perspective.”

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Tiffen said Immigration New Zealand’s move to whittle down available pathways to residency and poor communication had left a lot of migrants in a state of uncertainty, feeling as if they had no control over their lives.

“Most of them upended their lives to come to New Zealand – which is really as far as you can go,” she said.

Unlike the United Kingdom where migrants from Europe may have the option to return home from time to time, New Zealand’s remote location means often once these migrants are here, they are all in.

“They’ve been totally disconnected from their homes,” Tiffen said. “And their lack of belonging has been extenuated by not knowing if and when they can be residents or get their families in.”

She gets phone calls every single day from migrants seeking answers.

“I’ll get calls from people saying ‘I’ve never seen my son.’ They’re here and they just want to know what to expect.”

Although immigration into New Zealand over the past 18 months has been low due to the border closures, it was at a high point in the months before Covid-19 gripped the world.

According to Stats NZ, there were high estimates of migrant arrivals between late 2019 and early 2020 – many of whom remained in New Zealand once the borders clanged shut.

This left countless families separated from loved ones, while other migrants had the certainty of their future in the country they wanted to settle in hinge on the whims of Immigration New Zealand (INZ), which has been reducing options for migrants steadily.

A number of pathways to residence closed to new expressions of interest at the end of June, and next up are the essential skills and talent work to residence visas, ending on October 31.

“After that, the only way to get residency will be to snuggle up with a Kiwi,” said Tiffen.

Immigration expect Nicola Tiffen gets phone calls every day from migrants seeking answers. Photo: Supplied

Ruth Isaac, general manager of employment, skills and immigration policy at Immigration NZ said the categories were being narrowed in order to grow productivity in New Zealand.

“Residence settings are intended to attract genuinely higher-skilled workers who can grow New Zealand’s skill base and increase productivity,” she said. “The existing work to residence visa categories are not targeted enough to achieve this.”

The closed work to residence categories are set to be replaced by a new form of work visa which will open a pathway to residency for those paid at least twice the median wage.

Although this was announced in late 2019, Minister of Immigration Kris Faafoi announced last Friday that the new visa had been delayed until mid 2022.

Isaac said Immigration NZ was still working out how this may affect timings for shutting down the other categories.

Tiffen’s concern is this extends life in limbo for a group of people who have already been dealing with uncertain futures for a very long time.

“Many migrants and their advisers would appreciate information from the Government as to when the re-set will take place and what the requirements will be,” she said. “Many migrants, who had a legitimate expectation when they entered New Zealand of being able to apply for residence, have been left in limbo for well over a year.”

She said although it’s not the Government’s fault people had been unable to travel over the past year, they still needed to inform migrants in New Zealand what their fate would be.

“If these migrants are unlikely to be able to qualify for residence and settle here, it would be right and fair to advise them of this, as soon as is practicable,” she said. “This will enable them to make the right decisions for them and their families, and also enable New Zealand employers to adequately plan their workforce.”    

She said there were two points of view on why any resolution had been such a long time coming. 

“Either [the Government] are busy dealing with other things, or it’s a reset on migration policy,” she said. “I don’t know which.”

As a lawyer who has been dealing with immigration issues for 20 years, she appreciates there are no easy answers.

“You’ve got business and economic interests on one side, and the migrants on the other,” she said. “It can be difficult to find a balance.”

However, whether you are pro- or anti-migration, the people already here deserve some answers.

“Whether you agree or disagree with migration policy, a large section of society are migrants,” she said. “Their connection to New Zealand has been eroded, no family to keep them grounded, and so highly skilled migrants like IT people that we want to keep are looking for flights home.”

If we wanted to bring in workers to fill the gaps in our economy, we had to meet their needs, she said. 

“If they can’t bring their families, they’ll want to direct their energies somewhere else.”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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