17 Jul 2019

The heartbreak behind the immigration backlog

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 17 July 2019

The government is sticking to its election promise of turning down the tap on immigration.

Prior to the last election, Labour indicated it would reduce immigration numbers by 20,000 to 30,000, while New Zealand First pledged to take it right down to 10,000 from 70,000.

New figures show the government has slashed resident visa numbers to the lowest seen in the last two decades.

In contrast, temporary work visas are at their highest point ever.

RNZ immigration reporter, Gill Bonnett, says net migration figures are still high.

“If you look at work visas, they’re still very buoyant, and a lot of people still want to come into the country as tourists and as students.”

Bonnett says the sharp dive in residence numbers started with changes made by the previous National government.

But she says the decrease in resident numbers in the last year is largely because of delays in processing.

“It’s not clear whether that is part of the way they’re bringing the numbers down because they have a target to reach in terms of a lower number of residents.”

Bonnett says an anti-immigration sentiment started brewing about 2015 and 2016 when immigrants were blamed for high house prices and pressures on infrastructure.

“People became very concerned with immigration when in fact some of the issues were not immigration-related at all.

“I think that the National government, as it was then, decided to take a step back … to try and ease off on the temporary work visa numbers.

“To try and make it harder for people to become residents, they increased the number of points that skilled immigrants had to get in order to become residents here.”

In the lead-up to the election, New Zealand First was also very vocal about how immigration numbers needed to drop.

Labour rhetoric echoed that sentiment, with talk of turning the tap down.  

Bonnett says the net migration numbers - the numbers of people arriving in New Zealand minus those leaving - are holding steady.

“Students are still trying to come into the country and international education is still a very big business.”

But a restructure at Immigration New Zealand, which coincided with visa volume rises, has thrown a spanner in the works.

In an attempt to streamline the process and cut costs, Immigration New Zealand wanted to reduce the number of global visa processing centres from 25 to 10.

Bonnett says, “They didn’t forecast visa volumes to increase so they laid people off.”

New people have been hired and trained in visa processing in Mumbai and Henderson, leading to significant delays and costs to businesses.

“[International] students couldn’t start courses, costing the international education sector $33 million within three to four months.”

Additionally, visitors couldn’t make their trips in time and some operators had to cancel tours.

Bonnett says a lot of temporary visa applications are time sensitive, such as holidays, course starts and recruiting foreign workers.

About 26,000 applications for residence are waiting to be processed, up by 10,000 on this time last year.

In partnership visas, where one person is working or a student and their partner wants to join them, sometimes with children, there have also been long delays.

“It’s been really tough on some of those the families where one part of the family is here and the other somewhere else”.

Photo: RNZ