What the government could be doing to help migrants right now

Opinion Piece: Aaron Martin, principal immigration lawyer for NZIL

The New Zealand Government could be doing a lot more to help overseas and onshore migrants right now.

If you’re going to be asking other countries to help and be kind to New Zealand migrants stuck in their country; as NZ PM Jacinda Ardern did when she made a direct appeal to Scott Morrison to allow laid-off New Zealanders living in Australia to access benefits back in March – then surely you want to apply some of this kindness and respect to some of the migrants here?

The lack of action by the government is beginning to seem hypocritical. Because the principles the New Zealand Government repeats time and again – kindness, compassion, seem to stop when it comes to what passport you hold.

This is my recommendation, point-by-point, of things what the New Zealand Government could be doing.

Allow more overseas residents and work visa holders to return to New Zealand

At present only 250 people can come into the country each day, and there’s capacity to quarantine about 3200 people at one time – and most of those were taken up by returning citizens and residents.

So, as of June 9, there are over 62,000 temporary migrant workers stuck overseas, who are unable to return to New Zealand.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway told Newstalk ZB just this week that the Government is trying to increase the quarantine capacity, but it was the Health Minister’s job to tell Ashley Bloomfield to make more room.

However, Ashley Bloomfield went on to say that they are not looking for new facilities until they know that more people are arriving in the country from overseas and he has not been specifically asked to look for any.

So, it seems that there is no plan yet to accommodate more people who want and need to return.

Set up hotels as controlled quarantine systems (and support the local economy)

One must ask, why isn’t the government be finding hotels to set up controlled quarantine zones?

They keep talking about fostering New Zealand businesses – and this is a clear way to support the languishing hotel industry thanks to border control and tourism being almost non-existent.

The government could place returning migrants into these empty hotels and pay the hoteliers to accommodate them, for 14 days. Most of those seeking to return are happy to pay the costs of this also. This measure would benefit the economy by generating work and keeping businesses afloat until borders can re-open more and tourism can get re-established post-COVID.

In my opinion, it’s hard to believe we cannot bring people into New Zealand in a way that minimises exposure to COVID-19 and also allows for contact tracing in this way.  This seems a sure solution.

After all, we invested into all this new technology for contact tracing, and we definitely have a lot of empty hotels – it seems a bit disingenuous at this point to not be doing it already.

It’s not just overseas migrant workers that are being neglected. It’s onshore workers too.

Acknowledge the plight of migrants stuck in NZ and do more to meet their needs

Right now, they can’t leave, and can’t get another job, and they are not allowed to claim unemployment benefits – so they are actually stuck, and there is no real support on hand from them.

The only thing I’ve heard is the government saying is “it’s enough to provide food parcels”.  Well, someone must ask, if you wouldn’t consider that suitable for your own citizens, why do you consider that level of support suitable for anyone?  People are literally surviving on meagre supplies of baked beans and spaghetti and moving into their cars. Unless you’re also implying that they don’t deserve support because they’re a migrant?

One thing the government could be doing to meet their needs would be to offer an unemployment benefit that is available to migrants. These people have contributed to the economy and paid taxes just like any other New Zealand citizen or resident has.

Worried this will negatively impact the economy in some way? Don’t be.

The principle of cash injections is that they don’t sit in the bank (especially when paid out to lower socio-economic groups like unemployed migrants)  the people who receive it go out and spend it, so it enhances the local and national economy. The same applies to migrants. It’s no different.

So, if you’re giving provisions to a migrant worker who can’t get another job, they’re still spending that money in the New Zealand economy – supporting residents and other local and national businesses.

Provide variations to their work visas so that they can find work

Providing an unemployment benefit to migrants would be one option to support migrants – and another would be making alternations to their visa conditions that make it possible to for them to find work.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway was given the power by the Immigration COVID-19 Amendment Act last month to vary the conditions of work visas to make them slightly more broad.

This means he has the ability to remove the reference to the employer on a work visa that currently specifies an employer – while keeping nature of the work the same, and keeping the location of the work the same or wider.

This still provides a lot of protection for the government – while solving the problem of all these skilled migrants who have lost work due to COVID-19, and can’t get out of New Zealand because of flight and country restrictions, can’t go work for anyone else because of their visa conditions, and can’t get access to unemployment benefits or Social Security.

He has yet to activate this.

Why? Well, probably because theoretically, it puts these skilled migrants in direct competition with New Zealanders when it comes to finding jobs.

Is there a political motivation to these decisions?

The silence of the Labour party in terms of arguing for compassion, kindness and human dignity when it comes to the skilled migrant workforce in this country is startling. In fact, it’s kindness toward this group seems almost non-existent.

It seems likely that these decisions are politically motivated – with the election coming up, and the Labour party keen to secure re-election.

Unfortunately, Immigration has become a political football that people kick around, but nobody likes to touch – because it gets you in trouble no matter which way you address it.

But I also believe our international reputation is going to be damaged quite significantly.

You’ve already got a significant number of people offshore pointing out that discrepancy in kindness from this Government.

It’s not such a pretty picture to be painting, and one that definitely has a whiff of hypocrisy and xenophobia about it.

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