Immigration News

Opening Up the Borders… For Some

On 24 November, COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins outlined a reopening plan for New Zealand’s international borders, which have been closed since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.

The plan states that “fully vaccinated Kiwis and other eligible travellers” can travel to NZ from Australia without staying in MIQ from 16 January, and from all other countries from 13 February.

The unknown question for me is what constitutes an “other eligible traveller”. I suspect this refers to people given permission to enter New Zealand on the basis they have a critical purpose and have been issued critical purpose visas.

To be blunt it is one of those difficult scenarios where there is an announcement without any policy release for immigration following on behind. Hopefully there may be some clarity in this regard in the coming weeks.

My view is reinforced by the reference to the three steps around when travellers can enter New Zealand without going into MIQ which uses the wording “under our current border settings”.

In short it appears to be an announcement about an announcement couched in very careful language that allows considerable leeway for rules to be developed at the discretion of the relevant ministers.

To help provide some clarity, let’s look at a few scenarios.

I’m a foreign national and want to work in New Zealand, when can I apply for a visa?

Reading between the lines it would appear that people who are offshore will be able to start making applications for temporary entry visas (work, student, and visitor visas) from 6 February onwards when the current border embargo may be lifted, but in a staged manner.

I reference the comment in Step 3 of Minister Hipkin’s plan which refers to “opening to fully vaccinated foreign nationals (possibly staged by visa category)”.

It is also possible that the embargo may be extended for some types of visas. For example, they might say that from February, foreign nationals who get a job offer from a Kiwi and want a work visa can go ahead and apply, as can international students enrolled for bachelor degrees or postgraduate qualifications, but those wanting a visitor visa for a holiday will have to wait until later in the year.

What about if I have a partner or family overseas who want to join me in New Zealand?

Those with partners are in a really difficult situation. Let’s say you have a relationship with a partner in Sweden, but you haven’t lived together, and you want to get together in New Zealand. The answer is that if you don’t meet the current rules for partnership visas, then there’s still no real clarity or certainty around when they can come to New Zealand. So, if it’s a partnership in ‘formation’ mode, in other words you’re not living together, then you potentially have a longer wait.

I suspect the critical purpose visa regime is going to remain in place until August.

What I believe the government might choose to do from a political motivation is to first deal with split families – so for example, where one parent is here working but the rest of the family didn’t apply for visas before the borders closed in March 2020.

What does it mean for the New Zealand business community?

Alongside split families, I believe a competing priority will be the employers who need workers. And there’s an economic motivation from the government to do that and put a handbrake on the wage inflation that is running rampant and is going to result in skyrocketing interest rates.

The government will also be considering its own self-interest in needing infrastructure projects to be completed, houses to be built, and ensuring they’ve got enough nurses and teachers. They need to make sure employers are not being starved of the skills needed to keep the economy ticking along.

What about travel to and from Australia?

People in Australia seeking to come to New Zealand may have to wait until 30 April before some form of travel bubble reopens.

It is, however, left open with quite vague terms as to whether a quarantine-free travel bubble may be opened in January or February; that can simply be achieved by a change in the definition of “other eligible travellers”.

In the meantime, the green light system means New Zealanders can go and holiday quarantine-free in Australia, but Australians can’t holiday here without a 7-day self-isolation period. That has massive implications for our domestic tourism sector because it means Kiwis now have the option of leaving New Zealand for their holidays, but there is no one coming in to replace that domestic tourism spend.

Is there any word on when we’ll go back to pre-COVID rules around travel?

Unfortunately not, and I don’t see that happening for a very long time. It’s clear to me that border regimes are not viable economically. But it looks like that is going to be the primary response until the government wakes up and realises that, rather than trying to prevent the health system from being overloaded, the appropriate response is a strong, well-resourced health system and developing the capacity to deal with the load.

If you need to know more about how the border opening will affect you or your business, contact NZIL today.