Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Aussie Malcolm: Dehumanising immigration policy reflects our attitudes

Recent articles in the Herald about the hopes and disappointments of two skilled young couples seeking to migrate to New Zealand have put a three-dimensional human face on people who, once they arrive here, are often seen by us in terms of two-dimensional stereotypes.

Hopefully, those articles may help to change our perceptions.

Reading about the immigration process from the migrants' point of view may also change our perceptions about our own system. Did we appreciate how inconsistent and frustrating our policies can seem when viewed from the other side?

I was particularly moved by the circumstances of Emilly and Guang, who spent months on research, paid hundreds of dollars to the New Zealand Government and travelled extensively by train, pursuing an application that was doomed from the start.

It was not dodgy consultants or lack of research on their part that caused their dream to fail. It was New Zealand's immigration policy that, in spite of reams of taxpayer-funded paper and scores of web pages, is extraordinarily difficult to navigate.

Not only are the immigration goalposts sometimes hard to see from a skilled migrant's point of view, they have, as Emilly found out, a frustrating tendency to keep shifting.

Although Emilly was from China she had a postgraduate degree in computer programming from an English university and a determination to stay in and work in New Zealand. Don't we need young people like that?

In fact, while she suffered particularly from elements of policy that some would say are prejudicial against Chinese, her experience with New Zealand immigration has been shared by many intending migrants of all ethnicities.

How does this happen?

In New Zealand we have become absorbed by domestic arguments about migration (many irrational, and some simply racist), with party political point-scoring, with refugees and terrorists, and have developed a strange fascination about "getting the numbers right".

I don't care whether the numbers are 30,000 or 50,000. But I do care whether the people who make up those numbers are skilled, have jobs to come to, and are the sort of people who will make superb New Zealanders.

Our fascination with numbers and political arguments has created immigration policy machinery for skilled migrants that is designed principally to protect politicians from each other's attacks.

The skilled migrants become dehumanised, reduced to numbers and ciphers by complex points systems, and processed by a machine that neither understands nor respects them.

I am constantly amazed at the perseverance and patience of those who make it, and reflect that at least it ensures that our skilled migrants are an extremely determined and durable group in our society.

But as an immigration specialist I am also acutely aware of the families that my fellow New Zealanders seldom see - the thousands of good, skilled, keen people throughout the world whose desire to come and contribute to the growth and development of our country is rewarded by their being sucked in, chewed up and spat out by our system.

Is this all the fault of a heartless immigration bureaucracy? No, it's not. Immigration New Zealand simply does the bidding of its political masters who are, in turn, responding to us, the electorate.

New Zealanders have been looking at migration and migrants with stereotyped thinking and debating what they do to our society rather than for our society. We have ignored their humanity and their feelings, and have talked about them as though they were not in the room.

Our present policy is inconsistent, exploitative of skilled migrants and dehumanising - but it is only a reflection of our own selves.

The Government is committed to a major review of immigration policies. That's not a specialist subject. It's an issue that affects us all and shapes our futures. What the Government comes up with will in part be a reflection of what we as a community say we want.

For my part, thinking of my senior years and considering who is going to be employed and paying taxes to support me, who are studying to gain the skills to care for me, who is creating the skill base that will provide opportunities for my grandkids, I wonder if it's not time for the pendulum of public opinion to swing back a little.

Might it be time for us to recognise the humanity of our skilled migrants and to understand that, in wanting to come and put their shoulder to our wheel, they are paying us a great compliment?

I know it's a radical suggestion, but we might even consider, sometimes, being just a little bit grateful.

* Aussie Malcolm is a former Immigration Minister.

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