In the lead-up to the election, we are examining a policy a day. We’re exploring a variety of policy areas, explaining the background and analysing some of the policy options, with a mixture of technocracy and values-based approaches. Inevitably, some opinion will make its way in and we make no apology for that – after all, we’re voters too. A list of all the articles is available here. Enjoy!
Today’s post is by Andrew Chen
Immigration has been one of the hot button issues in politics this year, with migrants placed under the spotlight from all sides of the political spectrum. The big trap is that a lot of the discussion has been about the causal impacts of immigration on other issues, such as housing, infrastructure, and employment, when immigration is actually only one impact out of many influencing those areas. People seem to have a tendency to say “increasing immigration means that we have a housing crisis” with the subsequent implication of “reducing immigration would fix the housing crisis” when immigration actually has a pretty limited impact on house prices and there are a multitude of other factors at play. So the immigration debate should be about much more than just increasing or decreasing the numbers – there is a lot of nuance to be taken into account, especially when we remember that we’re talking about humans, not just units of economic production and consumption. Looking a bit more deeply into the details gives us a better understanding of what levers we can actually pull to actually address the identified issues.
One of the often-missed but actually really, really important details is the role of temporary migration. Every month the media reports “record net migration” based on Statistics New Zealand data that says more people are coming into the country long-term than those leaving. But when we take a closer look at the types of visas that are being granted, we find something quite interesting:
It turns out that the number of residency visas (i.e. people who want to live here permanently) has actually been pretty stable for a really long time. What has gone up significantly is the number of work and student visas, and in many cases even though they get classed as “permanent and long-term” because they want to be here for longer than 12 months, they really should be considered temporary because most will leave within 3-5 years. This is evidenced by the relatively static number of residence visas – most work and student visas simply do not get converted into residency, throwing cold water on the theory that these visas are a “backdoor” into permanent residency. Whether you agree that the overall number of migrants is too high or too low, the fact remains that the number of migrants arriving on a temporary basis is increasing.
Let’s hold that thought and have a look at perceptions of New Zealanders towards migrants. A UMR survey in May reported that 56% of people thought that “too many people who come to live here from overseas don’t seem to have a good enough grasp of English”. The same survey reported that 45% of people think that “immigrants often all go to live in one suburb creating divisions between New Zealanders”. MBIE and NZ Asia Foundation surveys in 2016 have both reported significant proportions of the population believing that migrants are culturally harmful, including 23% agreeing that “allowing migrant cultures to thrive means that New Zealand’s culture is weakened” and 31% agreeing that “Asian people do not mix well with New Zealanders”.
All of this points towards a discussion about integration – given that migrants are coming to New Zealand, how do we make sure that they are able to participate fully in society, joining communities and forming friendships? A significant proportion of New Zealanders think that migrants don’t integrate well enough, and for some reason the expectation is that migrants should do all the integrating (with many New Zealanders conveniently forgetting about their role in welcoming new migrants). It seems odd to me that some people think that the solution to migrants not speaking English well enough or not “mixing well” enough is to reduce the number of migrants. Isn’t the better solution to help these migrants integrate?
As it turns out, recent policies and announcements from Immigration New Zealand contain language such as “reducing expectations of settlement from temporary migrants” and “ensuring that migrants with no pathway to residence do not become well-settled in New Zealand”. This is on top of changes that make it harder for migrants to bring their families to New Zealand with them, and rights afforded to migrants explicitly based on the level of their salary.
Therein lies the rub – we have an increasing number of temporary migrants, who the public expect to integrate into New Zealand society, when the government is actively trying to discourage temporary migrants from “settling”. What incentive does this give for migrants to try to integrate? Temporary migrants know that their visas have limited lifespans, and if a migrant knows that they will definitely have to leave a country relatively soon, then why would they invest effort into integration? It takes time to settle in a new place, to join a community, to build trust with people and develop relationships. But time is something that we simply do not give these temporary migrants.
Better support is needed for new migrants, temporary or otherwise, to help accelerate the integration process. There are a lot of problems with the current immigration system as well as with many of the proposed immigration policies from the political parties, but this post isn’t about trying to move the numbers up or down. What we want to address is the problem that once migrants are approved and come here, we seem to make it unnecessarily difficult for integration to happen, especially if they are here on a temporary basis.
Existing migrant support is relatively limited. Immigration New Zealand outsources (and contributes funding towards) other parts of government to provide services, such as the Citizens Advice Bureaus, the Chambers of Commerce to help people find jobs, and the Ministry of Education to fund ESOL classes, while giving grants to non-government organisations like the Auckland Regional Migrant Settlement (ARMS) Trust and the Chinese New Settlers Trust. More recent approaches have focused on the provision of grants such as the “Settling-in Grants” to community support groups, taking the responsibility for migrant settlement out of the hands of the government.
In 2013, the Auditor-General published a report investigating how well the government supported new migrants to settle and work. About $17 million was budgeted for helping migrants settle in 2012/2013, but importantly most residency visas include a $310 migrant levy that provided about $6.5 million of that budget. There’s also something subtle about that levy – it gets charged when migrants are granted residency because by and large, migration settlement services are generally not available to temporary migrants. [In the interest of transparency, in the latest 2017/2018 budget the amount for “settlement and integration of refugees and other immigrants” has gone up to about $35 million, but this is largely because refugee settlement used to be allocated separately and has now been merged into the same line item. At the same time, the migrant levy will raise about $25 million this financial year.] At the moment, the government spends, on average, about $200 per migrant on settlement services, and that’s only counting those given permanent residency visas.
Migrants bring significant economic benefits to New Zealand, and helping them integrate into New Zealand better could unlock more social and cultural benefits too. There are relatively successful initiatives in Canada and Australia for supporting migrant settlement that we can bring to New Zealand. A lot more money could be invested into initiatives such as free English and Te Reo classes for all new migrants to help overcome language barriers that make integration challenging, cultural exchange workshops with Māori including education about the Treaty of Waitangi, and buddy programmes that help match up new migrants with local mentors. These programmes wouldn’t necessarily be compulsory, but improving availability and increasing awareness will go a long way in helping many migrants feel more safe and comfortable in New Zealand. It doesn’t really matter if these programmes are run publicly or privately – the crux is that more public funding should be allocated to make these programmes more widely available. Most importantly, the funding needs to be extended to temporary migrants too, and the language around “reducing expectations of settlement” should be reshaped into language along the lines of “helping migrants fully participate in society while they are in New Zealand”, acknowledging that not all migrants may have the option to settle.
I can’t say with certainty how much money should be allocated to these programmes, but I definitely feel that a few hundred dollars for each permanent migrant, for the entire lifetime of that migrant, is not enough. Given that we’ve already invited these migrants to be here, it seems wasteful not to help them fully engage with our society. The government should see investing further into these programmes as investing into new people who can contribute greatly to New Zealand, beyond supplementing our labour supply. Communities with a strong sense of trust and safety have multiplicative benefits for society, from a stronger voluntary sector to better health outcomes to generally higher morale. Improving the ability of new migrants to contribute to these communities is critical for making New Zealand the best country it can be.
Andrew Chen is a PhD Candidate in Computer Vision at the University of Auckland, investigating embedded vision with surveillance and robotics applications. In his spare time he has interests in evidence-informed policy, science and technology communication, civics education, and immigration. Also, he thinks cats are great.