31 Dec 2021

New report highlights plight of undocumented Tuvaluan migrants

10:40 pm on 31 December 2021

A new report is drawing attention to the plight of undocumented Tuvaluan migrants in Aotearoa.

The research, by Unitec's Dr Hoa Nguyen and Senior Lecturer David Kenkel, is based on the lived experiences of undocumented Tuvaluan migrants and their children, and forms a detailed picture of the desperate situation they face.

With assistance from the Tuvaluan Auckland Community Trust, the pair of academics conducted interviews with undocumented migrants and compiled the information they uncovered into this report.

The researchers noted that there was a lack of published information about the lived experiences of undocumented migrants ( sometmes referred as "overstayers") in New Zealand to draw on. Therefore they needed to go to the source, and conduct face to face interviews. This allowed them to gather direct information about the realities of life in Aotearoa for undocumented migrants and their children.

The process of interviewing and reporting on their findings took nearly 2 years. Although they had originally planned for 1 year, the Covid-19 lockdowns caused significant disruption to their research.

The researchers noted that all of the study's participants came to Aotearoa New Zealand with valid visas. However, for various reasons they had been unable to or denied renewal:

"They came here with the hopes of being able to get better jobs, access to better health care and dreams of being able to give their children a better education and a better life. Now, without residence status, they are often unable to work legally and are not eligible for public support or healthcare. Frequently their children cannot go on to tertiary study without paying exceptionally high international fees and the adults themselves cannot further their own education."

Tuvalu is highly susceptible to rises in sea level brought about by climate change.

Tuvalu is highly susceptible to rises in sea level brought about by climate change. Photo: UNDP/LUKE MCPAKE

As these undocumented migrants entered legally they were able to obtain IRD numbers. This means that while they contribute to New Zealand's tax base, they receive none of the social security benefits for doing so. They are effectively locked out of New Zealand's social safety net, and are ineligible for government benefits, grants or welfare assistance.

Often they are only able to obtain low-paying employment, and unable to access the education or training to improve their situation.

They are denied access to free health care that New Zealand citizens often take for granted, and must pay for treatment. Their children are ineligible for Plunket/Well-Child Whanau Ora and all child health care services, including those offered through school-based programs to assess possible learning disabilities.

Their lack of legal immigration status leaves them in a precarious and highly stressful position. As they "tread water" just to survive and maintain their familes they are encircled by sharks: on one side the immigration authorities and the risk of deportation, on the other the predatory practices of unethical immigration professionals who take advantage of their vulnerabiltiy, demanding exorbitant fees for their assistance and often giving only empty promises in return.

One of the report's key findings was the insidious effect of a 2006 immigration law change, which provided that any children born in New Zealand, of undocumented migrant parents, were not New Zealand citizens or residents. This change ensured that the hardships faced by undocumented migrant parents were almost certainly passed on to their children.

The researchers noted that: "There are now some unknown hundreds (or thousands) of young New Zealanders of many ethnicities and backgrounds who through no fault of their own face a future of profound disadvantage and risk."

These young people will find it almost impossible to obtain such basic identity documents as an IRD number or driver's licence.

To provide some context for the issue of undocumented migrants the researchers noted that there are an estimated 13,000 to 14,000 overstayers in Aotearoa New Zealand at any one time. This is equivalent to about 0.28% of the population. In comparison, the United States of America has between 10 and 11 million undocumented migrants living within its borders, which accounts for 3.2 to 3.6% of the population.

New Funafuti waterfront recreation are, Queen Elizabeth II Park

Photo: Supplied

The researchers emphasized that policy change was necessary, at the risk of creating a group of "second-class" New Zealanders, who are permanently driven to the economic and social margins.

They acknowledged that their work involved a relatively small number of participants, but that further research could provide a more accurate picture of the number of children likely to be affected by these issues. Hopefully then some policy changes could arise to free these youngsters from an intergenerational economic prision.

Despite the deeply negative impacts of being undocumented migrants, the researchers also discovered the strength and resilience of these Tuvaluans, in the face of such adversity. Although pinned under the weight of the current visa system they were unbowed and retained their hopes, dreams and aspiriations for a better life for their children.