Migrants paying thousands to stay in NZ

6:07 pm on 26 April 2016

Temporary migrants fighting to build a life in New Zealand say it's costing them thousands of dollars to navigate the immigration process.

Kareem Ismael says he must save thousands every year just to re-apply for a student visa.

Kareem Ismael says he must save thousands every year just to re-apply for a student visa. Photo: RNZ/ Mohamed Hassan

Kareem Ismael, a tutor at Auckland University, is in his final year of a PhD in city planning, which he started in 2011.

Most of the money the Egyptian-born man earns tutoring is saved to show Immigration New Zealand he has enough to live on at the start of every year.

If he doesn't have $16,500 in his bank account when he applies, he can't renew his visa. That translates to more than 70,000 Egyptian pounds.

"It is of course a huge amount of money, especially since I'm self-sponsored from Egypt.

"Our economy is not in its best shape in the last five years."

Mr Ismael said once he finishes his study, he wants to apply his expertise as a planner in Auckland, a place he now considers home.

He will apply for residency this year, but doesn't know what his chances are.

"I have heard different cases, some people got it really easily in three months, some people didn't get it at all. My qualification, my age, the point system - of course it's worrying me."

In the meantime he is trying to stay positive and hopes the government will see him and other migrants not as a burden, but as contributing members of society.

"Those people coming from all over the world, they have suffered all of that financial strain to stay here, they really want to stay here, and they really want to increase the abilities of this country.

"They deserve to have an opportunity."

Migrants economically vulnerable

A report from Auckland University found migrants were having to jump through financial hoops, leaving them economically vulnerable without any assurance they would be allowed to stay.

The study found 86 percent of residence approvals in the skilled/business category last year were on a temporary visa of some kind before they applied, and many ended up with large amounts of debt to help them finance their stay.

Only a fraction of temporary migrants who said they wanted to stay in New Zealand were accepted, and only 17 percent of students managed to transition into residents.

Sarin Moddle has been a staple voice on Auckland independent music station 95bfm for six years. She also works organising music festivals, writing and doing the occasional stint in hospitality and as an operations manager for BizDojo.

She moved to New Zealand from Canada in 2008 as a student, but eight years and several work visas later, she realised she had built a life here.

"The first couple of years it was like 'oh I'm having so much fun, it would suck if I have to go home'.

"But then after that it becomes 'I've set my life here', and if I have to leave I effectively have to start my life over again somewhere else."

Sarin Moddle has become a resident after eight years and thousands in legal fees.

Sarin Moddle has become a resident after eight years and thousands in legal fees. Photo: RNZ/ Mohamed Hassan

Soon the uncertainty of not knowing if her next visa application would be accepted became a source of anxiety.

"The thing that is constant is that you still never know that it's for sure.

"Immigration is this faceless bureaucracy. You can call them 20 times in one day and talk to 20 different people and get 20 different answers."

So she decided to hire an immigration lawyer to help her get her residency, which she eventually got last Christmas, after forking out more than $8000 in payment fees.

"I started saving a couple of years after I got here once I got a real job, and I started putting money into what I thought was a retirement savings."

"Pretty much all of that went to the lawyer."

Marie Pfister, 29, is in New Zealand on a partnership visa.

The French native met her now-husband, Omar Abdullah, in Auckland while working as a barista and travelling the country five years ago.

They fell in love, got married, and then began the arduous process of trying to prove all that to immigration.

"Have you and you partner been together long enough, have you and your partner been living together, spending money together. I've been keeping all the paper bills and invoices for internet, electricity, flights. It's been four years."

During that time, they spent thousands on visa payments, compulsory medical checks, and translating documents from back home.

They are now waiting to have enough money to apply for her residency, which costs $800.

Until then, thinking about buying a house, or even having children, is out of the question.

"When you apply for a visa here in New Zealand, if you're a female, they ask you if you're pregnant, and if you are planning to give birth in New Zealand or not.

"I'm not quite sure if you actually can stay if you're planning to give birth."

New pathways

Immigration minister Michael Woodhouse said the government recognised the difficulty for some who have been in New Zealand for several years.

"There are issues with temporary visa holders being here for a long period of time, but with no pathway to residency."

A review was currently underway, and there were plans to introduce some new pathways to residency this year.

The changes come in light of bedrock unemployment in the South Island, with the Canterbury earthquake recovery efforts, horticulture in Nelson and farming further south.

However, Mr Woodhouse said those new pathways don't extend to the North Island, and especially not to Auckland-based migrants.

Temporary migrants shouldn't get to stay in New Zealand if they're not filling a gap in the market, he said.

"They shouldn't have an expectation that residency will follow if they aren't in areas of high skill shortage."

With high youth unemployment in Hawke's Bay and Auckland, the government needed to make sure New Zealanders were at the front of the queue for jobs, he said.

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