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A Hypocritical Host

Aotearoa/New Zealand

A hypocritical host
New Zealand’s immigration policy was expected to generate an economic miracle.
Penny Hartill examines why it has been a disaster. 

Manel Hanna, her husband Maged Nessim, and their seven-year-old son Mina have been in Aotearoa/New Zealand since November 1996. Manel has a Bachelor’s degree in English literature, Maged is a qualified architect. Both speak perfect English. Maged worked in his profession for 17 years in their homeland, Egypt, before the family decided to migrate to New Zealand. Maged explains: ‘We had heard the lifestyle here was excellent, a good place to bring your children up. Also it was the easiest place to get residence.’


The reality has been very different. Maged’s degree in architecture was recognized by the Qualifications Authority, but has not been accepted by the country’s professional Architectural Institute. This seems particularly unfair – it was his qualification as an architect that gained him entry in the first place. Since 1987, like Australia and Canada, New Zealand has adopted a points system that favours bringing skilled migrants into the country who can benefit the economy.

Maged is even turned down for unskilled work. When asked why, he replies: ‘Because I am foreign; because the way I speak English is different. This country is so beautiful, but migrants aren’t welcome here.’

For the last year-and-a-half, Maged has been working part-time as a delivery person for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Demoralized and ashamed, the couple do not know how much longer they will stay in New Zealand. ‘Back in Egypt, we had a beautiful home and a good income. We have lost so much. I want to work; it is humiliating to be on the dole. I am so frustrated, it is not what we expected,’ says Manel.

It has been 10 years since New Zealand abandoned its racially discriminatory policy of favouring migrants from the ‘the traditional source countries’ – Britain and Ireland. The new immigration policies were implemented as part of a broader program of social and economic deregulation. Roger Kerr, Chief Executive of the Business Round Table, says: ‘Immigration policies need to be liberal. Migrants bring with them knowledge, technological know-how and links to foreign markets.’ The Government argued that if New Zealand wanted to be accepted as a trading partner with different countries – especially the Asia/Pacific – then New Zealanders had to be prepared to have a variety of people living and doing business here.

The policy seemed initially to be a success. Immigration figures for 1991 to 1996 show that the number of Asian immigrants rose 76 per cent to 173,000. Now nearly 5 per cent of the population are Asians. In 1994, 33,000 Asian immigrants were accepted in the space of 12 months. They brought NZ$722.6 million ($355 million) with them.

But according to Dr Manying Ip, Lecturer and Social Historian at the University of Auckland, the policy is fundamentally flawed. ‘It is totally one-sided and no consideration whatsoever is given to the welfare of the migrants themselves. Migrants become merely pawns on an economic chessboard. Any policy that neglects one partner in a process that requires close co-operation of both sides is predestined to fail.’

Visions of a ‘human cattletruck’ come to mind in an address given by the Government Treasurer, Winston Peters, at the country’s first-ever Population Conference in November 1997: ‘We need to import highly skilled people from time to time and we need a policy that facilitates this.’ Otherwise the country, like many other developed nations, will face a declining population in the next 20 to 30 years. Manying says: ‘New Zealand and its Government needs to ask itself what we have to offer to new migrants.’ She goes on to reveal cases of Asians passed over for jobs and rental housing. Despite a more open Government immigration policy, the country is still a closed shop.

Data on the employment status of migrant groups who have lived in the country for fewer than 10 years is enlightening – only 20.5 per cent of Chinese and 9.9 per cent of Koreans are in the ‘wage earner’ sector. Sixty per cent of Chinese identify themselves as ‘not in the labour force’. Yet these people were carefully chosen as ‘the cream’ under a rigid and competitive points system. It is a tremendous waste of valuable human resources.

A 1997 study concluded that of the 49 per cent of Chinese who had been business people in their own country, only 20 per cent said they were still in business. Their incomes had dropped by an average of $NZ20,000 ($9,800) a year.

Medical doctors Mr and Mrs Shanger, from Sri Lanka, migrated to New Zealand with their seven-year-old daughter, Sri, and four-year-old son, Hari, in June 1996. Despite being favoured under the immigration points system, neither had their qualifications recognized and were forced to live in separate countries. Mrs Shanger found work on a Pacific island. ‘I thought it was important that I kept up my practical experience, so I made the difficult decision to go with my youngest son to somewhere that recognized my qualifications until I was able to sit my examinations in New Zealand,’ explains Mrs Shanger.

Both doctors agree that it has been very difficult without a job. ‘Back in Sri Lanka we had a good home and land. It’s hard not to get depressed.’ Their current home is a humble one. Six cracked chairs make up the only furniture in their living room.

Open for business - but many migrants find New Zealand is a closed shop.

President of the Federation of Ethnic Councils and a practising local doctor, Dr Nagalingham Rasalingham agrees that immigration policy is a knee-jerk reaction to a struggling economy. He states: ‘There was no consultation between professional bodies such as the New Zealand Medical Association and the Government. Thousands of people legally had the right to enter the country but had no right to work. In fact, up until recently, new migrant medical doctors were not even allowed to use the medical school library.’ To date, two new immigrant medical doctors have committed suicide.

Immigrants are suffering high unemployment and emotional hardship because they were deceived about life in New Zealand before moving. Nagalingham reveals: ‘I have seen many sad cases of family break-ups, psychiatric issues and suffering because of misguided expectations.’

In October 1995 the points system was tightened. Since then, doctors, dentists, veterinarians and other professionals need to be registered for practice in New Zealand before they get points for their qualifications. In a move that was denounced as racist, a three-hour English-language test was introduced that must be passed by the principal applicant. Dependants who could not pass the test each had to pay a $NZ20,000 ($9,800) bond.

Not surprisingly, Asian immigration has collapsed almost overnight and many migrants, disgruntled and short-changed, have decided to go elsewhere. In November 1996, the top two sources of migrants were Britain and South Africa. Overall, more than 50 per cent of immigrants under the post-1995 system came from ‘traditional white’ sources, compared with 28 per cent under the old.

The root of the problem may lie in the attitude of New Zealand’s base population. Polls conducted asking: ‘Do you think there are too many/too few/just the right numbers of Asian, Polynesian and British migrants to the country?’ have been tediously predictable. The public generally found there were too many Asians and Polynesians and just about the right number of British.

The underlying message seems to be: ‘We shall suffer your presence, just effect your economic miracle real fast!’ It is no wonder that unsuspecting immigrants are confused, floundering. It is no surprise that discerning would-be migrants are staying away.

‘If you want the truth,’ says Maged, ‘I think that the Government wants our children, they do not want us. The children can be cloned like other New Zealanders.’

Despite the Government’s gung-ho enthusiasm for professional Asian immigration, most New Zealanders do not consider themselves part of Asia. Acceptance as a South Pacific nation has been slow and that’s about as internationalist as many New Zealanders want to become.

‘Maybe those who still have a vision that New Zealand should be the “Better Britain” of the South Pacific can rejoice. How long can we afford to live in a time-warped fortress, ignoring our geopolitical reality?’ asks Manying.

In April of this year it was announced that new immigrants would not be eligible for social-service benefits until they had been in the country for two years. Despite compelling evidence, the Government continues to bring skilled migrants into the country, fails to support or endorse their qualifications and then punishes them when they cannot find work.

For Manel and Maged this has been a disaster. Manel argues: ‘I felt strongly that given the points system, Maged would be in a good position. But after 75 job refusals, we have become numb. It seems impossible to get work in your own field here. If the country does not need us, then why did the Government invite us here, why?’

Penny Hartill is a journalist and the Public Relations Manager for the Refugee and Migrant Service in Wellington.


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The Refugee and
Migrant Service

PO Box 11 236, Manners St, Wellington,
Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Tel: +64 4 471 1932
Fax: +64 4 471 1938
e-mail: [email protected]

The New Zealand Federation of Ethnic Councils
25 Houghton St,
Meadowbank, Auckland, Aotearoa/New Zealand. Tel: +64 9 528 0895

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