The Government’s move to relax international border restrictions from early next year will not mean a relaxation of immigration requirements.
Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins announced last Wednesday that fully vaccinated Kiwis and other eligible travellers could travel to NZ from Australia without staying in MIQ from 16 January 2022. They could travel to NZ from all other countries from 13 February.
But though all fully vaccinated people will be able to travel to NZ from 30 April without going into MIQ, the relaxation is likely to apply to only tourists from some countries.
But there is currently a freeze on issuing visas for any people other than essential workers or partners of New Zealand citizens or for humanitarian reasons. POLITIK has learned that two weeks ago, the Government extended that freeze until August next year.
So while tourists from Australia, Europe, the United Kingdom, the USA, Japan and South Korea will be able to enter because they do not require a visa, tourists from China and India who do require visas will not.
Students, non-essential workers who do not yet have visas and tourists from China and India are unlikely to be able to enter the country.
International students who require one-year visas are unlikely to be able to come at all next year.
The Government’s visa freezer has led to protests directed at the New Zealand High Commission in India, and yesterday, an attempt to issue Visas to New Zealand residents whose visas had expired ended with the Immigration New Zealand computer system crashing.
The surprising aspect of last week’s announcement was the requirement for seven days of self-isolation.
Few countries have such strict conditions. New South Wales has increased its requirements for international arrivals since the arrival of Omicron, but even so, travellers must now self isolate for only three days.
Government sources have, however, told POLITIK that the announcement was not necessarily the final word; that changes might be made incrementally as the programme began to be introduced.
The tourism industry was critical of the announcement. Though Air New Zealand welcomed it, the airline is unlikely to be pleased that it will have to wait till May before it can begin flying tourists to and from its Pacific rim destinations.
However, Hipkins has suggested there might be some ability to bring that date forward.
“The April timetable does not preclude us moving earlier, with specific groups if it is safer to do this, and there may well be opportunities to do that,” he said.
But whenever the Government moves, there are some big questions in the background.
The lack of education visas will cost the education sector.
The University of Auckland, which has the largest number of overseas students, is believed to currently have retained only about 5000 of the 9000 it had at the beginning of last year and half of those are offshore and studying online.
In 2019 international students made up nearly 10 per cent of its $1 billion annual budget.
Officials are currently working on what was being called the immigration “reset”, which is a broad review of all immigration visa policies.
This further complicates re-opening the education visas because many also include work rights either while the holder is studying or after they have completed their degree.
POLITIK understands a particular issue is that many migrants get low skill qualifications, such as in business and then take up relatively unskilled jobs in the New Zealand economy, such as in retail.
Stuart Nash speaking on behalf of Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi delivered a major speech on the reset back in May.
“While we’ve been progressively moving to reduce our reliance on lower-skilled migrants over time, we’ve still seen significant population growth – one of the highest in the OECD – driven, in large part, by migration,” he said.
He made it clear there would be big changes.
“When our borders fully open again, we can’t afford to simply turn on the tap to the previous immigration settings,” he said.
“That path is a continuation of pressures on our infrastructure, like transport, accommodation, and downward pressure on wages.
“Since the borders closed, we’ve seen a reversal in the horticulture sector – for example – where there’s been a lift in wages to bring in local workers.”
But while the reset is being debated by officials, hundreds of migrants are stuck in the system somewhere.
This has had a particular response in Delhi, where migrants unable to return to New Zealand have protested outside the New Zealand High Commission. Their situation has now been made worse by the freezing of visa applications until August.
In September Faafoi, announced a one-off Resident Visa simplified pathway to residence for around 165,000 migrants currently in New Zealand.
Many offshore stuck post-study work visa holders fulfil the criterion but are disadvantaged because of the primary condition, “To be eligible, the principal applicant must have been in New Zealand on 29 September 2021.”
They have returned to India, often for family reasons such as the death of a parent, but have been unable to return because they could not get MIQ space.
So they have been protesting in Delhi.
The group was led by Jagdeep Singh, who had been stuck in India since last year. He used to work for a healthcare logistics company in New Zealand.
“Many of the protesters are students who are unable to return to complete their education,” he told Indian media.
“Our entire lives, work, properties, everything is there.
“Eighty per cent of people’s temporary visas have expired in the last one year, and the New Zealand government has closed all offshore file processes.”
Applications for the visas the Indians are protesting about being unable to access opened yesterday but such was the rush of applicants that Immigration New Zealand’s computer system crashed.
Opposition Immigration spokesperson, Erica Stanford, claims Immigration New Zealand knew the system was not up to processing the thousands of applications they received.
“Immigration New Zealand knew this was likely to happen, as evident by the fact they asked immigration advisers to not submit all their applications on the first day,” she said.
“Sources have advised the Opposition that Immigration New Zealand chose to develop the IT system that would manage the R21 Visa applications in-house, clumsily attempting to merge an archaic on-site system with a cloud-based system.
“They currently have dozens of IT workers manually trying to find the glitch in the system, which could take days and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“The Immigration Minister must take immediate action to ensure this doesn’t happen again in March 2022 when 90,000 applicants all try to lodge their resident applications.”
The Government’s decision to “reset” immigration policies while the borders were closed might have made sense if the borders were not closed as long as they have been.