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SocietyJuly 30, 2020

‘Give us some hope’: Stranded visa holders beg for more government help

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As the global pandemic drags on, an already precarious situation for New Zealand migrants is becoming increasingly fraught, reports Maria Hoyle.

Romi Aggarwal speaks softly and calmly, choosing her words with care. Still, her emotion is tangible when she talks about being separated from her family. “Jacinda Ardern recently celebrated her daughter’s second birthday. She baked her a cake and did everything a mother would do,” she says. “I have missed two birthdays of my son already.”

It wasn’t meant to be like this, but visa processing backlogs conspired with Covid to shatter this family’s plans.

Aggarwal arrived in Auckland from India in September 2018, on a student visa. She’s since completed her studies and continues to live and work in Auckland on a post-study open work visa. The plan was for her husband and son to follow once she had got the ball rolling, to give the three-year-old “a smooth transition”.

She applied in June 2019 for a partnership-based work visa for her husband, plus a dependent child visa. At the time immigration officers were treating culturally arranged marriages as different to other partnership cases, declining many applications where couples hadn’t lived together. While this didn’t impact Aggarwal – she’d been living with her partner for six years – what happened next did.

After criticism from the Indian community, in November the government reversed course, opening the door to visa applications based on culturally arranged marriages. Previously declined files had to be reassessed, leaping ahead of Aggarwal in the queue. It took 10 months for her application go to a case officer.

Finally, in March, the two visas were approved – and then the border closed. The message to temporary visa holders offshore: stay where you are.

“It might take another year for a vaccine to be found,” says Aggarwal now. “Does my son have to wait all that time without his mum? I haven’t seen him, put him to bed, read to him for almost two years. How can you separate families based on visa status? Isn’t a child of a migrant as loved by his parents as the child of a citizen?”

Returning to India is not an option, not with Covid cases topping one million, and a death toll of over 25,000.

“If, god forbid…” She pauses. “How will I survive if someone in my family gets hit by the pandemic?”

Auckland International Airport (Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly)

Carlos Porras’s student visa expires on August 3. He must either apply for a new one or go home to Colombia. But Colombia has shut its borders, including to its own citizens. Porras has been working part-time as a lounge assistant at Auckland Airport, on the minimum wage. Come lockdown, he was grateful to receive the wage subsidy for the initial 12-week period, but now he’s worried he’ll be stranded here with no funds. While some temporary visas were automatically extended in line with an Epidemic Management notice that took effect in April, student visas that expired after July 9 weren’t included. Porras has to apply for a new visa and, with rent of $250 a week, he can’t afford the delay that would entail. “I need to work to live,” he says.

Porras and Aggarwal’s stories illustrate just two of the myriad difficulties migrants face due to Covid, say migrant advocates. The crippling uncertainty over when they can return to countries ravaged by Covid; how to survive with neither a job nor access to benefits; if and when they can be reunited with loved ones – all of it is taking a huge toll. The stress is quite literally killing people. In Queenstown alone, four migrants have died by suicide in recent months, according to the Salvation Army.

The situation is also tough for thousands of temporary visa holders stuck overseas, some on a “pathway to residence” who have called New Zealand home for five to 10 years. “I know of many cases where they are very close to getting residence. They can’t now meet those requirements as they’ve been locked out because of Covid. And we’ve been given no timeframe,” says Anu Kaloti of the Migrant Workers Association (MWA), an advocacy group.

The MWA wants people to be allowed back into New Zealand on a priority basis, giving preference to essential workers and, as in Aggarwal’s case, separated families. They’ve also long been calling for visa processing delays to be addressed, and since Covid for the visas of migrants stuck offshore to be extended.

Kaloti says things are especially difficult for those on Employer Assisted Visas that tie them to one job. “We have seen so many businesses fold or make people redundant that many of those visa holders have lost jobs. Your visa becomes invalid and you are unlawfully here, but in many migrants’ home countries the borders are closed. They are trapped.”

No one can accuse the government of not trying to help. Millions have been spent on aid packages, and the Covid subsidy was extended to everyone, regardless of visa status. But campaigners say more is needed.

Kaloti would like to see the government take two key steps. First, to enact emergency legislation under section 64 of the Social Security Act to extend benefits to migrants in need; and second, to open all visas so migrants stuck here illegally can work.

She says the Immigration (Covid-19 Response) Amendment Bill enacted in May gives the immigration minister carte blanche to change conditions on visas. “He has the powers, so why doesn’t he use them?”

It’s a view echoed by Pasifika migrant rights campaigner Kennedy Maeakafa Fakana’ana’a-ki-Fualu. Secretary of the Auckland Tongan Community Incorporated, he is known in South Auckland as the Tongan Robin Hood for his work assisting the poor and underprivileged.

“These are extraordinary times that need extraordinary action by the government. We’ve heard the ‘be kind’ message but let’s walk the talk,” he says.

“No more backpackers are coming in [but] there is work that needs to be done – fruit picking for example. The demand is there, so why not give the work to the overstayers?”

On July 21 the Pacific Leadership Forum delivered a petition to parliament calling on the government to provide “pathways to residency” for all migrant overstayers on compassionate grounds. Maeakafa Fakana’ana’a-ki-Fualu thinks “well settled overstayers” should be granted at least a three-year work visa as a pathway to residency.

Asked how those overstayers are getting by, he replies: “Let me speak on behalf of the Tongans. We have ‘nofo-‘a-kainga’ – the essence of community; we look after the vulnerable ones. We have a ‘kafataha’ philosophy of leave no one behind.”

Social development minister Carmel Sepuloni (Photo: Radio NZ / Rebekah Parsons-King)

Approached for comment on reports of migrant hardship, social development minister Carmel Sepuloni outlined several measures already taken to help those in need. An initial $27m has been provided to non-government organisations and community groups, and another $30m to bolster the delivery of Local Civil Defence Emergency Management relief. The Temporary Accommodation Service was resourced to house those who lack suitable self-isolation accommodation, and further funding of $37.6m, administered by the Red Cross, was aimed specifically at assisting foreign nationals with costs including rent, board and rent arrears.

As for extending benefits, “unfortunately, in terms of any proposals to use section 64 we were unable to form a consensus with our coalition partner NZ First to use this specific provision to assist non-resident foreign nationals.”

She said the government is continuing to assess the situation and that any migrant experiencing financial difficulty should call 0800 REDCROSS (0800 733 276) or contact their embassy or consulate.

While welcoming the aid already provided, Kaloti says the funding received by community groups often does not cover the admin costs incurred, and much of it is not available to temporary visa holders anyway. She also notes the Human Rights Commission has declared the Red Cross package to be inadequate for the scale of the problem.

Asked by The Spinoff to respond to migrants’ requests for flexibility around visas, immigration minister Kris Faafoi said: “We are taking careful steps to safely reunite families and support economic recovery. The exceptions to the border closure that we have already announced support this.” Those with temporary visas and who normally live in New Zealand were “top of mind”, he said. However, many factors needed to be considered including the employment of New Zealanders, the availability of managed isolation at the border, and the availability of flights.

As for Romi Aggarwal, she just wants the government to be kind to migrants, both onshore and offshore. “I understand ‘Kiwis first’, but those New Zealand residents were once migrants too. And weren’t we a team of five million when the entire world was fighting the virus? If we were, why should you discriminate based on visas status now? Give us a time frame, give us some hope.”

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