Immigration - A Positive Policy

  • Max Bradford

Centra Auckland Hotel

For the first time, in the 1996 General Election, immigration was a controversial election issue. In Australia, the immigration debate has been taken to greater extremes. Immigration is a major negative focus in Australia at present. Pauline Hanson's controversial One Nation movement has gained fervent support and - thankfully -equally furious criticism.

The negative focus on immigration is saddening, to say the least.

For me, the positives of immigration were put squarely in the spotlight during one of the most memorable and moving early moments of the Coalition Government - Pansy Wong's maiden speech.

She painted a picture of New Zealand as One Nation, Many People - a country rich in people, skills and cultures.

Indeed, one of the benefits of MMP is that we now have a Parliament far more representative of what New Zealand is - a country with diversity of culture and ethnicity. We now have MP's with roots in the tangata whenua, Chinese, Pacific Islands, English, Scots, Irish...

Immigration is positive socially. It creates diversity of people, talent and culture.

Twenty years ago the choice of restaurants in Auckland or any other main centre was limited. You could just about count them on two hands. The choice of food served was even more limited.

Tonight, if you wanted to go out to dinner, you'd have a vast array of choices - Greek, Chinese, French, Thai, Japanese, Turkish, Spanish, Mexican... at literally hundreds of venues.

And Kiwi cuisine has benefited from culinary knowledge from overseas - the days when meat, mashed spud and three over-cooked veg ruled the New Zealand table are gone - thank goodness. New Zealand is reputed to have some of the most innovative, exciting cuisine in the world.

Immigration has been immensely positive economically. It brings in motivated people with diverse skills, new money and investment, and links to overseas markets.

In a recent article, a senior Auckland University lecturer in international business pointed to the fact that the 1995 and 1996 property boom coincided with a wave of net immigration - 30,000 in the year ended September 1995 and 27,000 in the year ended September 1996. It has been estimated immigrants poured $2 billion into the housing market between 1994 and 1996.

Between 1992 and 1997 more than 110,000 people from Asian countries gained approval to migrate to New Zealand. With them they've brought more than $1.8 billion dollars.
New Zealand today is a country formed by immigration.

It never was a "cradle of civilisation" in the same way that China, Africa or Central Europe have been, with a history stretching back many thousands of years before New Zealand was settled.

So far as we know, Maori established themselves as tangata whenua after epic voyages of discovery and resettlement 600-1200 years ago.

At the time of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, Maori numbered 100,000 and non-Maori 1,000.

Maori now make up 14.5 percent of the population - 523,000 people.

Pacific Islanders have increased from virtually nil immediately after the Second World War, to 2.7 percent of the population in 1981, to over 5 percent now - 180,315 people or the equivalent of a city the size of Hamilton.

The Chinese community has similarly mushroomed. In 1981, only 0.3 percent of the population was Chinese, but in the 1996 census this proportion had risen to 2.3 percent - 82,300 people or about the size of Palmerston North and twice the size of New Plymouth.

At the same time as these communities are growing, the European population is losing its share of the population.

Even after waves of British, German, Dutch, and other European migration in the 1950s and 1960s, the European share of the population is estimated to have fallen to under 80 percent.

These are very significant shifts in a short period and it is timely for us to take a good look at who and what we are.

The Coalition Agreement sets out a goal: to have an immigration policy that reflects New Zealand's needs in terms of skills and the ability of the community to absorb in relation to infrastructure, recognising the diversity of the current New Zealand population.

The Population Conference is a key part of the Coalition Agreement and will be held in Wellington on November. It will include high quality speakers and is aimed at a diverse range of people and organisations interested in population issues.

Although the conference has a much broader focus than just immigration, it is the first time New Zealanders have set out, armed with the facts, to debate and discuss who we are and what we may become as a population.

The conference will inform the community, academic and commercial sectors - as well as the Government - about the reality of present and future population dynamics so we are equipped to deal with the issues facing us in years to come.

To plan for our country's future we must know the facts and understand the relationships between population growth, immigration, economic growth and social needs.

The conference should be a significant kick-start to wider awareness and ongoing, informed discussion of the issues.

There is the issue of how to deal with more people.

We tend to concentrate on the economic problems of coping with more people in the education, health and retirement systems, and on how to provide the transport, energy, and other infrastructures to cope with a disparate population spread unevenly throughout New Zealand.

At the same time, our local communities are changing rapidly, as the diversity of their populations change. Not all communities are changing at the same rate either, which carries its own problems.

We need to look at:

the role of immigration
educations, skills and growth
the labour market and businesses
urban expansion and infrastructure
settlement of migrants
national identity, cultural development and ethnic diversity
international linkages
There is also the challenge of language.

About 10 percent of the population - or 385,000 people - speak languages other than English and Maori as a first language.

There is huge benefit from these many languages, apart from the fact they help liven up New Zealand.

The access to overseas markets close to us is helped immeasurably by the family and business linkages diverse ethnic communities and their languages provide.

But it creates challenges that we need to deal with.

Perhaps the most graphic example is the secondary school in Auckland of 1,300 students, where 53 languages are spoken, and English is the second language for most young people at the school.

Education policy is having to reflect the reality of diversity in language as well as the diversity of ethnic and cultural background reflected in the students.

The wider question for us to consider is an age old one.

Do we effectively enforce an assimilation policy on this diversity, as we tried to do with Maori many years ago, or do we accommodate the diversity into our education and other social policies?

This is a huge challenge for New Zealanders. Our approach today is not one of assimilation. Instead we broadly encourage diversity and recognise the different multicultural needs of a diverse population.

Another important issue for new New Zealanders is the often-difficult task of learning to live in New Zealand.

Immigrants take time to fully settle in New Zealand and the first few months in particular must be daunting, to say the least. Strange customs, laws, systems, climate, people and language must be dealt with and learned, away from the support of family and friends.

That is why I have asked for research into the needs of new migrants, as well as the strengths and shortcomings of current services. This topic will be a focus in one of the sessions of the population conference.

Immigrants are valuable people - people with skills, motivation, money and children to invest in this country - and it is important that we make their transition into our country as easy as possible.

At the same time, we need to make sure our processes and policies mean New Zealand is getting the people it needs - people who will contribute to our society and economy.

We live in a desirable country and in some cases it is amazing what lengths people go to, and what incredible scams they devise to get here when legitimate avenues are closed to them.

Such cases pose a considerable dilemma for the NZIS and for me as Minister.

One "normal" week recently at the Auckland airport went something like this:

Six Thai nationals with doubtful bona fides refused entry to New Zealand and sent home. One Australian in possession of drugs sent home. One Iranian with no documents arrived on the last flight, did not know what he wanted initially but claimed refugee status the next day.

One Australian and one Canadian refused entry and sent home after being found with drugs. One Iranian arrived from Korea, caught at Customs and claimed refugee status.

One Iraqi - officers were unable to establish where he boarded the aircraft - claimed refugee status. One British passenger with cancelled visa and only $200 sent home.

Two Nigerians claimed refugee status. Officials found out two days later they were subject to Section 7 of the Immigration Act (people prohibited from entering). Follow up action was taken.

a nice quiet day!

One Korean with two passports in different names sent home. Two Sri Lankans claimed refugee status.

One Thai national with doubtful bona fides sent home. One Sierra Leone national claimed refugee status... and is also being charged with using a false passport.

And that was not out of the ordinary.

Recently, a mentally handicapped young woman from another country was granted special permission to enter New Zealand to take part in family mourning for a dead relative.

Her immediate family, who were also here on visitors visas, went to some lengths to get her into New Zealand for the mourning, complete with a guarantee from a sponsor here that she would leave after her visa expired.

Within one single day of her arrival, the young woman was married to a brain-injured New Zealand man.

Neither the woman nor her family have returned to their home country following the expiry of their visitors visas, and are now claiming residence on the basis of the marriage.

Then there were the 33 Thai nationals refused entry. They claimed to be on a six-day tour visiting the deer farming industry in New Zealand. But airport officials found it difficult to believe that people who said their income was 4000 bhat a year, should be spending 12 years' earnings on a six day trip.

And, from the sublime to the ridiculous, there was the case of an Indian national who aroused an immigration officers' suspicion with a passport naming him as Frank Bunce.

It is this sort of thing which highlights the eternal conflict between the desire to be flexible in our immigration policies versus the sad truth that people tell lies and pull scams to get what they want.

As you know, anyone who has gained entry to this country can apply for residence - or if that fails - apply for refugee status. That leads me to related a problem - the fast growing number of asylum seekers - which I have turned my attention to as Minister of Immigration.

>From as few as 50 claims for refugee status a year in the 1980s, numbers have climbed alarmingly.

In 1993 there were 347 applications for refugee status. Last year there were 1340 applications, representing about 2500 people seeking asylum. That is in addition to the 750 places set aside in a quota for genuine refugees referred to New Zealand by the UNHCR.

Since 1993, only 28 percent of those applications for asylum have been assessed as genuine.

It is an alarming trend - one the Government is determined to arrest.

The problem is exacerbated by the New Zealand appeal system which, in its current form, is wide open to exploitation by the applicants and by their advisors.

An applicant who is not a genuine refugee and does not qualify to become a residence can nonetheless play system to remain in this country for as long as six years by appealing and re-appealing at every level right through to the Minister's office.

May I remind you of the case of Ulsterman Danny Butler - declined asylum in 1992 and still fighting to stay.

As time passes, such cases are often complicated by the birth of children in New Zealand.

It is difficult to quantify the cost to the New Zealand taxpayer, but it is considerable - for a person with no children the cost is roughly estimated at around $11,500 a year with one-off decision processing costs of $12,500. That includes income support, health care, legal aid as well as the annual budget of nearly one million dollars for the NZIS refugee status branch which processes the applications. On-going costs are, of course, more for those with dependent children.

Among those most disadvantaged by the false asylum seekers are the handful who honestly come here seeking refuge from persecution in their own country, and who are entitled to aid from New Zealand.

However, there are moves to remedy the situation.

The entire appeals system is unwieldy and open to rorts. I am reviewing it with a view to tightening, streamlining and making the process faster and more certain. This will have a double-barrelled benefit. It will more quickly identify and remove those who are not genuine refugees, cutting costs to the taxpayer and easing the strain on NZIS resources.

It will also shorten the period of uncertainty for those who do genuinely qualify for refugee status. Then they can quickly get on with making a new life here, becoming part of our diverse population so they and their children can become valuable parts of New Zealand. Their rights and our responsibilities will not be compromised by the changes we will make early next year.

The Government wants to make sure immigration makes the maximum positive contribution to our society and economy. We are working to that end with our policies, with on-going review of our processes and through the Population Conference later this year.

Immigration is an integral part of our past and a vital part of our future.

It made New Zealand what it is today. It has a huge potential to contribute even more in decades to come.