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Migrant Workers are Bearing the Brunt of New Zealand’s Hardline Coronavirus Approach

The government has successfully mitigated the spread of COVID-19 by locking down the nation's borders and denying entry to just about everyone—including those with a temporary migrant visa.

by Katie Herchenroeder
Jun 24 2020, 2:33am

Image by Marty Melville/AFP

New Zealand’s border closed to Shuchi Bhardwaj while she was in the air.

The 25-year-old was rushing back to the country she’s called home for the past four years after hearing of the government’s plans to close the border. It was on March 20, during a layover in Dubai––boarding pass in hand, preparing to embark on her final leg to New Zealand––that she was stopped and told that the rules had changed during her previous flight. She was stuck. After over 22 hours of confusion and struggle in the Dubai airport, she was allowed to go back to Tanzania, where she’d been travelling prior to the border closure announcement.

A work visa holder, Bhardwaj is still in Tanzania as the New Zealand government limits entry into the country as part of their strict response to the coronavirus. She’s been tirelessly working to return for more than three months, but to no avail. Her fiancé, apartment, job and life are in New Zealand. She just wants to go home.

“My life was abruptly taken away from me as a result of the border closures and the current pandemic,” Bhardwaj told VICE in an email. “For both my partner and I, it is critically important that I’m allowed to return to New Zealand as I have nowhere else to go.”

Since the first confirmed coronavirus case on February 28, the New Zealand government has acted quickly to quell the spread of the virus—and it’s worked. While countries like the United States are still seeing tens of thousands of new cases daily, New Zealand got their cases to zero in just seven weeks. Only a handful are currently active, identified and isolated.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is at the centre of this response, comforting Kiwis with her personable character and decisive approach. Her leadership stands tall in comparison to others who have failed to treat COVID-19 as the global pandemic it is. But even amid New Zealand’s widespread success in containing the coronavirus and keeping people safe, those already on the margins of society feel left out.

“Although New Zealand’s progress and fight with COVID-19 has been remarkable, its compassion and care towards its own migrant workers has been negligent and inhumane,” Bhardwaj said.

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Shuchi in front of New Zealand's Mount Taranaki

She is one of an estimated 10,000 offshore migrants at the other end of these policies, with no real sense of when they’ll be allowed back into the country. While New Zealand begins to reopen and enjoy a normalcy foreign to much of the rest of the world, those without citizenship status are suffering disproportionately from lockdown. These recent trials—ineligibility for government funding and an inability to reenter the country––are exacerbating pre-existing frustrations in migrant communities. Bhardwaj and others exist in a limbo: between the New Zealand they’ve made home, and a status that is often treated conditionally in relation to nationals.

“There are thousands of us connecting through WhatsApp groups, Facebook pages and forums trying to seek [the] government’s attention, but there seems to be no compassion or even an acknowledgement from the Prime Minister,” Bhardwaj said.

This lack of care, she added, is not new to her.

As a student in New Zealand, Bhardwaj fell in love with the country, paid her dues, and worked to gain a visa, all the while considering herself a vital part of the country's social fabric. After graduating, she turned her energy towards finding a job and entering the country’s workforce—and in so doing, quickly became familiar with the process of labor market tests.

In New Zealand, employers must prove that a position cannot be filled by a national before a migrant is granted a visa and permission to work. This test has only gotten stricter since the onset of COVID, as the government attempts to aid those New Zealanders who have lost their jobs over the past few months––effectively slashing opportunities for migrant workers to secure new employment.

In an interview with Radio New Zealand in early June, Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway essentially warned returning migrants that the visas they had obtained could be at risk in the future as more nationals seek employment.

“I think this is only reasonable, it's only fair to the migrant workers themselves that we're upfront about this and it's only fair to New Zealanders that we use the immigration system in the fashion that it should be used, which is to fill genuine gaps,” Lees-Galloway said. “When it comes time to renew their visa the labour market test will be applied and they may well get a different outcome than they had done in the past.”

While guidelines for migrant workers have intensified, however, the rules for other groups looking to enter the country have been surprisingly lax.

In the past few months the New Zealand government has granted permission of entry to a range of international, non-migrant and non-essential workers—including a film crew shooting the sequel to the 2009 movie Avatar, both America’s and the UK’s sailing teams, and workers involved in projects of national or regional importance. These groups total in the hundreds, and have been let in with little to no legal basis while migrant workers like Bhardwaj are repeatedly denied access.

For context, the current cap of daily quarantine spots in New Zealand is a mere 250, with the government citing a lack of space and funding as the reason for the shortage in accommodation. According to local reporting, between April 10 and May 19, $48,222,453 was spent to house 7,755 people. For each migrant worker that returns, officials estimate the cost sits around $6,200 per person, although a spokesperson for the government told The New Zealand Herald that a decrease in costs can be expected as systems become more streamlined.

Bhardwaj, who’s lived in New Zealand since 2016 and holds a visa that expires in 2021, thinks Parliament shouldn’t use money as an excuse to keep people out. They can front the bill, she said, to keep herself and others safe and secure.

“There are many people whose visas are expiring and they don’t even know if they are going to come back,” she said. “We are not asking for favours; [we are] ready to pay our expenses in the process to come back, and ready to quarantine at a government chosen facility.”

As she sees it, such selectively hardline border control measures can be boiled down to political solvency.

“It seems that temporary migrant workers are clearly out of luck, as we do not constitute a voter constituency which can either reward or punish the government in any manner for any perceived grievances,” she said. “That probably explains the lack of conviction in ameliorating our plight.”

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