New Zealand needs to prioritise keeping skilled migrants post-pandemic or risk losing them to countries with open-door migration policies like Canada, an immigration expert says.
Residency applications are prioritised for people earning more than $112,000 here, a process that has been described by critics as flawed, and does not get the people needed for highly skilled but lower-paid jobs.
Last year, the Government suspended expressions of interest (EOI) selections for the skilled migrant category (SMC) prompting migrant workers to leave to gain residency elsewhere because of delays in processing times.
Several essential workers on temporary visas have told the Herald they too were considering leaving because of this.
Massey University sociologist and immigration expert Paul Spoonley said New Zealand was viewed favourably with how it handled the Covid-19 pandemic, but not for how immigration will be reshaped in a post-Covid environment.
"A recent global survey of international students found that New Zealand was ranked top by students in terms of the way in which it had dealt with Covid, but Canada was the country that scored the highest in terms of what next for international education," Spoonley said.
"This probably sums up the New Zealand brand."
The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment data showed that as of August 31 this year, 180,069 migrants were here on work visas, many of them temporary.
Spoonley said New Zealand should follow Canada, which had set a 1 per cent target or 401,000 net migrant gain this year and targeting those already on its shore.
"If those on temporary visas already here met good character requirements and had an ongoing job, then why not prioritise those in the same way that Canada has done?" Spoonley said.
"In my view, the most significant barrier is the salary threshold. This is a very crude measure of value, which does not reflect labour market or societal needs for either the migrant or New Zealand."
South African Erin Tichenor, 24, and her partner Eduan Breedt, 26, work in fields that are on the skills shortage list but are now looking at moving to Canada or the US.
Tichenor, a social worker working with people in need for emergency and transitional housing, said the suspension of EOI has played a major part in them looking to move overseas.
"We realistically cannot risk waiting for a day when Immigration decides they may or may not start the selection process again. It is costly and isolating to be here," she said.
"There are several mental and emotional effects of being isolated away from home. We don't feel it makes sense to invest our money, time, and commitments in a country with unclear messages about whether it wants us.
Breedt is a physiotherapist who work with people in chronic debilitating pain.
"Having worked in New Zealand for almost two years it is abundantly clear how desperate we are for more healthcare and social service practitioners," he said.
"Sadly, Immigration has stopped selecting from the EOI pool since the pandemic, and it doesn't appear it is going to begin the selection process anytime soon."
He said this had been disheartening for them.
"After almost two years in New Zealand we have no choice but to look at alternatives. We have started looking at residency programmes in other countries such as Canada and the US," Breedt said.
"New Zealand risks losing hundred or thousands of skilled, much-needed, workers due to their lack of movement in immigration policy."
Nicola Hogg, INZ's general manager border and visa operations, said the agency was aware of the uncertainty that many individuals are facing with the suspension of EOIs.
She said the Government was considering options for the skilled migrant category.
Hogg said demand had risen significantly over the past few years, which had resulted in longer decision times for applicants.
As of September 13, 13,084 skilled migrant and residence from work visa applications needed to be allocated for processing. This included 11,541 currently in New Zealand.
"Residence applications take time to process given how much there is at stake and the level of scrutiny required for each application," Hogg said.
"We appreciate that waiting for significant lengths of time for an application to be processed causes uncertainty in the lives of people who wish to settle in New Zealand more permanently and always look for ways that we can improve our communication with applicants."
Kerrin Connolly, INZ acting general manager border and visa operations said she understood the agency understands Breedt and Tichenor's frustrations.
"The government recognises the ongoing labour demand pressures being faced by sectors and wants to make it as easy as possible for employers to retain their current migrant workforce to ease some of this pressure," she said
"The government is continuing to consider options for reopening of the selection of EOIs for the SMC and hopes to have more to say soon."
Breedt submitted an EOI for the (SMC) on 5 June 2021, listing Tichenor as his partner on the EOI, after selection of EOIs was paused in 1 April 2020.
Conolly said that as Tichenor's visa expires on 24 July 2023, she could consider extending her work visa if needed, while the couple awaits a residence decision.
The Government is currently considering options for the SMC.