What future for permanent migration to New Zealand?

  • Migrants who qualify under the Skilled Migrant Category should lodge expressions of interest: Ankur Sabharwal, owner of immigration advisory Visa Matters.

OPINION: New Zealand will restart its refugee programme this month, allowing 210 refugees to arrive by June 2021. What chance – if any – is there for other migrants who hope to stay permanently?

Since Covid-19 closed New Zealand’s borders nearly a year ago, Immigration New Zealand (INZ) has stopped inviting skilled migrants and investors to apply for residence visas.

These programmes are on hold until April 2021 at least – the government will decide before then whether to reopen them.

In the meantime, INZ is working its way through an 18-month backlog of 13,000 unallocated Skilled Migrant Category applications. It continues to accept new residence applications from the partners and dependent children of New Zealanders.

Skilled migrants who applied for residence prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and who still hold skilled employment in New Zealand will likely have their applications decided some time in 2021.

Other skilled migrants will have to wait

It’s great that refugees are still being settled here – this reflects New Zealand’s caring attitude in the midst of a worldwide pandemic.

Work visa holders would like to be allowed to stay permanently in New Zealand too, but in the meantime they are being shut out.

The door is not completely closed to skilled migrants, though, as INZ continues to accept expressions of interest (EOIs) from people who would like to be invited to apply for residence.

This is a strong indication that INZ will reopen the Skilled Migrant Category. Since INZ stopped selecting EOIs in March 2020, more than 6000 principal applicants have submitted new EOIs, claiming that they meet the current passmark of 160 points to be granted residence in New Zealand. Points are awarded for age, qualifications, skilled employment and skilled work experience.

The simplest thing would be for INZ to finish processing its applications on hand, then invite these people to apply for residence.

At its current rate of processing, that would be about nine months’ work for INZ’s immigration officers – an instant backlog, but then INZ should be used to dealing with backlogs by now.

So how many migrants does the government actually want or need?

An unanswered question is: How many permanent migrants does the government want?

For the 18-month period to the end of December 2019, the government had a target of between 25,500 and 30,600 skilled/business migrants. The government also targeted approval of about 20,000 partners and dependent children of New Zealanders, and about 6000 others (including migrants from the Pacific Islands, and refugees).

However, since the beginning of 2020, the government has not had any residence targets. A reminder: Winston Peters was in government until October 2020, and his New Zealand First party has always been anti-immigrant – its policy was to slash the number of permanent migrants.

There are no such impediments now to the new Labour government setting residence targets.

Moreover, New Zealand’s economic recovery is becoming clearer – the unemployment rate dropped from 5.3 per cent to 4.9 per cent in the December 2020 quarter. Once the border reopens to international tourists and students, New Zealand’s economy will grow again, creating employment opportunities that won’t be filled by the local labour market.

Skilled Migrant Category settings allow people who are working in skilled employment, are highly paid and have good English to be approved for residence (along with their families). That is, exactly the sort of people we want to stay permanently in New Zealand.

My best guess . . .

I’m picking a reopening of the Skilled Migrant Category in the second half of 2021. Possibly the EOIs on hand will be invited to apply at 160 points, then the points passmark could be raised to 180 points.

Or, INZ could leave the points passmark at 160 points, and – as it has already flagged – raise the threshold pay rate for skilled employment to the New Zealand median wage of $27/hour. Currently the threshold is $25.50/hour, which was the median wage prior to June 2020.

Why might INZ raise the bar to qualify under the Skilled Migrant Category? Simply because the competition for places will increase exponentially in future – once New Zealand reopens its borders, we will be a magnet for highly qualified skilled workers and investors from overseas.

If the points passmark goes up to 180 points, it will impact those people who score 160–175 points; they account for about half of EOIs (3400 of the ones on hand), and they will miss out.

Will INZ take this approach? Only time will tell.

My recommendation to those who qualify now: If you can score 160 points, lodge an EOI as soon as possible. Remember, you can’t win Lotto if you don’t buy a ticket.

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