19 Oct 2021

Immigration lawyer calls for Covid-19 vaccination to be a condition of visas

6:01 pm on 19 October 2021

An immigration lawyer is calling on the government to boost Covid-19 vaccinations by granting visas only to those who get inoculated, and offering an amnesty to overstayers who are double-jabbed.

Visa application form to travel Immigration a document Money for Passport Map and travel plan

Photo: 123RF

Richard Small said with a record 165,000 new residents expected next year, making vaccinations a condition of visas would increase immunity levels in hard-to-reach communities.

Allowing visas for overstayers was an idea proposed by the Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA), which also called for a clear pathway to residency for people from the Pacific Islands.

The government's broad residency announcement a fortnight ago will be enacted next year] but the estimated 14,000 people on expired visas were not included.

"The reason I would support vaccination as a condition for section 61 (visas for unlawful people) is that at least for our client base this is one of the most at-risk communities and potentially with relatively high levels of non-vaccination," Small said.

"With Delta we cannot afford to leave anyone behind. A visa is the one thing that would overcome isolation and anti-vax preaching that a lot of these people are receiving within their isolated settings by fundamentalist US-leaning churches."

Small, who runs Pacific Legal immigration lawyers, said visas for hard-to-fill jobs such as fruit picking could be followed up with residence through Pacific Island quota visas not used during the pandemic.

"There may be an argument to also allow equivalent visas in the aged care industry which is crying out for staff," he said. "Allowing caregiver visas for a certain number of applicants who are looking after vulnerable relatives provided there is clear evidence of their sponsorship and support. Again this would be subject to vaccination.

"We have 20 to 30 per cent of our long-term overstaying clients, particularly women, who have stayed single and are cultural caregivers full-time to New Zealand resident or citizen elders with multiple co-morbidities. They are saving the health system many millions of dollars and are liable for deportation for their efforts."

Vaccinations could be added to the full medical test and would be subject to medical exemptions and waivers.

A temporary visa for overstayers could be followed by the opportunity to apply for residence, he said, pointing to an amnesty in the early 2000s.

"Lives were transformed, children have gone on to become doctors lawyers, leaders in creative fields," he said. "I think the community would be surprised to learn the breadth and depth of gratitude and achievement that has come back from several thousand families who eventually gained residence after a two-and-a-half year probation."

The EMA are among those who support the amnesty idea as its members seek solutions for New Zealand's skills and labour shortage, saying it should have accompanied the government's Dawn Raids apology.

Immigration minister Kris Faafoi said in a statement an amnesty was not considered as part of the one-off residence work. "That is something that would involve a number of broader considerations," he said. "A vaccination requirement was also not considered as part of the one-off residence work."

Pacific reset

Government overstayer estimates suggest overstayers from Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu make up 48 percent of the total numbers.

Professor Paul Spoonley, who researches migration and settlement and is looking at the level of cohesion about the government's Covid-19 measures, said an amnesty would be a positive step. While RSE workers were being let in, backpackers who would also normally do orchard and vineyard work were not, so there would still be a shortfall in seasonal labour.

"We've offered an amnesty to people who are here illegally and wouldn't it be a good idea to try and consider who they are and where they are, subject to health and character requirements.

"I'm a great fan of requiring anything that you might do to show signs that you've been vaccinated. I think that we should attach to the rights to come to this country the requirement that you should be vaccinated and tested. What's disappointing to me is that very often, it's down to "rights", and the right not to be vaccinated. Whereas I think there's a "public good" right, which is that we should have communities that are vaccinated, unless there are very good reasons why you shouldn't be."

The Pacific reset announced by the previous Labour-New Zealand First coalition proposed changes to Pacific immigration.

The work focused on ensuring that residence policies, including family categories, were "accessible; that people's settlement needs are being met; policy settings minimise the risk of migrant exploitation; and that existing immigration policies recognise climate change displacement in the Pacific where appropriate."

A Cabinet paper showed reviews of the seasonal RSE scheme and Pacific-focused residence categories were being carried out to ensure they supported good settlement outcomes. The Samoan Quota and the Pacific Access Category programmes allow approximately 1750 people to be granted residence in New Zealand annually. Previous criticism has pointed to how difficult it is for successful ballot applicants to obtain job offers, meaning places have not always been filled.

The Ministry of Education signalled its interest in the work, particularly overstayers and the potential impact on outcomes for their children's outcomes, including transition from secondary to tertiary education.

The Cabinet paper showed then-Foreign Affairs minister Winston Peters had put forward an action plan on Pacific climate change-related displacement and migration to investigate changes to visas, which it suggested may be implemented after 2024.

A petition by the Pacific Leadership Forum last year called for residency for Pacific Islanders stranded here during the pandemic and evidence it gave to Parliament suggested overstayers contribute $124 million in taxes to New Zealand every year.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs