The government continues to betray overseas migrants

Pooja Sundar (D&S Law Photo)

Pooja Sundar
Auckland, March 17, 2022

Along with the rest of New Zealand, I eagerly awaited the border reopening news today, and along with thousands of New Zealanders, I was disappointed.

Disappointed with the lack of decision-making regarding non-visa waiver countries, disappointed with the lack of consideration for reuniting families and disappointed with the messaging from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Let me break down why.

As a quick review, when the New Zealand borders shut in March 2020, thousands of New Zealand-based migrants, their families, and the families of New Zealand citizens and residents were locked out. Slowly the government introduced exceptions to the border settings allowing partners of New Zealanders (partners being defined as a couple who have previously lived together) to come into the country under specific circumstances, and critical workers (among very few others) to return.

Results of closure

In August 2020, the processing of most visas from those outside New Zealand was also suspended to reflect the border rules.

This resulted in the following: (1) Migrants on temporary visas being separated from their partners and children (2) New Zealand citizens and residents separated from partners where the couple have not lived together previously. Think high-powered corporate couples, couples from countries where living together before marriage is not allowed culturally or same-sex couples from countries that do not recognise their relationship (3) Visas for partners of migrants, and partners of New Zealanders who have not lived together not being issued over the past two years due to the suspension.

There have been numerous protests and a legal challenge brought to try and change the above, to no avail. This is why today’s announcement was high stakes for a lot of people, and why they were disappointed.

Yes, partners from visa wavier countries (about 60) can enter from May 2022.

(Image from Facebook)

What Jacinda Ardern said

However, this fails to address the split families who are from non-visa waiver countries.

These families are doomed to further separation. When asked about this Ms Ardern stated three things in her press conference.

First, she said that it was not a matter of Covid-19 safety that meant the border remained closed to non-visa waiver countries, but a matter of capacity in visa processing.

With respect, the Prime Minister seems to overlook that prior to the pandemic, Immigration New Zealand processed such applications on a daily basis.

While it is accepted that there is likely to be a large influx of applications all at one time following reopening, there is always scope for government agencies to reshuffle staff just as they did to accommodate the one-off 2021 Residence applications. Visas applications can also be prioritised by type.

Excuses not justified

And the visitor visa application system was also partially automated in February 2022 to allow decisions to be made more efficiently which would no doubt help with the processing capacity. This seems to be a matter of not wanting to face a problem. The justifications provided by Ms Ardern are simply not sufficient in the face of separated families and New Zealand’s international obligations to ensure family unity is not subject to arbitrary interference.

Second, journalists who brought up this matter were told that many offshore partners and children would become residents as a result of the 2021 Resident Visa. While this may be true for some, the Prime Minister failed to outline that only partners who had lived together for 12 months or more, as is required under immigration policy, would be granted residence.

The others would have to wait, yet again, to be reunited with their families.

Finally, Ms Ardern stated that many partners would be reunited in April as those who already held valid visas would be able to enter.

What she fails to grasp is that these visas would have been issued approximately two years ago. A majority of these visas would likely have already expired, or the date of entry for the visas would have long passed.

While there may be a small number who are lucky enough to fit into this category, it still does not address the greater problem of ongoing family separation.

The repercussions

What could have been done? Many things.

The processing of visas for split families could be reopened, prioritised and decided to allow immediate entry when the border reopens.

Immigration New Zealand could reshuffle and hire more staff to process visas. Yes, I understand that it may not be as simple as that, however, where there is a will, there is a way.

The New Zealand borders could fully open in May 2022 along with visa processing and people would be able to enter if and when their visas were granted.

Based on the above, it is clear that despite what Ms Ardern has stated about New Zealand being ready to welcome the world back, we are, but the government clearly is not. They are too busy assessing profit and loss and forgetting to ensure that New Zealand meets its international obligations related to families.

Pooja Sundar is a Partner at D&S Law, specialising in immigration law. D&S Law filed judicial review proceedings against two decisions made by the Immigration Minister last year on the continued suspension of offshore visa processing and lapsing applications made by partners of New Zealanders and migrants.

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