The Minister for Immigration has a message for the majority of temporary visa holders stuck offshore: stay where you are for the time being.

Iain Lees-Gallowway, in an interview with Radio Tarana today, said there was a lack of opportunity to safely let back in temporary visa holders mostly because of a large influx returning New Zealand citizens and residents.

“What we’re seeing is as the number of Covid-19 cases around the world continues to increase, New Zealand citizens and residents who perhaps initially decided to stay in the country where they were are increasingly deciding to come back home to New Zealand,” Lees-Galloway said.

“We have limited exceptions, for humanitarian purposes, for family reunification and for people who offer a significant economic impact on New Zealand.

“But for the vast majority of temporary visa holders, for the time being, the message has to be to stay where they are, and whilst we’re working on increasing the capacity for managed isolation, for now that managed isolation is largely being taken up by New Zealand citizens and residents.”

Lees-Galloway was in Auckland this week, and met with migrant community leaders on Monday, before the interview in Tarana studios earlier today, Tuesday, July 14.

In a later live video, Lees-Galloway pointed out why Immigration New Zealand was not able to extend the visas of temporary visa holders who were stuck overseas.

“One of the things that we are concerned about is that an essential skills visa, which is what most people hold, is issued in order to fill a particular role, where we can demonstrate that the particular role is not one that New Zealanders can fill.

“If we automatically extend all those visas now, you may find that people may hold a visa even if a job that no longer exists,” Lees-Galloway said.

“That is certainly a concern from a good immigration perspective and also for the vulnerability of the people themselves – if they come to New Zealand and they have no job, and no source of income, that makes them very vulnerable to things like exploitation.

“This is not to say that we completely dismiss the idea of doing some kind of extensions for people who are offshore, but that is one of the big questions that we need to have a good answer to, which is how do we ensure that expending visas doesn’t actually work against our immigration policy, but secondly it doesn’t actually put people into a position where they are extremely vulnerable,” he said.

Lees-Galloway emphasised the firm view the government held about the border closure and restrictions that were in place.

“I make no apology for the border closure in New Zealand, that is what is protecting everybody in New Zealand – you, me, and the team of five million from Covid-19.

“So we’ve got to be realistic about what the prospects are for the people who are currently offshore.

“What I have said, and I do want to do is produce a plan that demonstrates to people how we will sequence the return to New Zealand of people who hold temporary visas,” Lees-Galloway said.

“We know it’s frustrating, incredibly frustrating for all of us, especially for the temporary visa holders that we can’t give a timeline, but we can’t give a timeline because the virus clearly has not peaked, we’ve seen something like a 100,000 new cases of the virus around the world every single day.

“We can’t predict what’s going to happen with the flow of New Zealanders back into the country, when we do see that flow start to reduce, then that will potentially open up spaces in managed isolation, and that is the time we can potentially try an opportunity for temporary visa holders to return.

“I get that it’s frustrating, I get that there are people in really difficult circumstances, I do feel for them, I wish it wasn’t the case.”

Asked about the delays in the processing residency applications and the backlog of cases at Immigration New Zealand offices, Lees-Galloway said he was satisfied that the “priority” and “non-priority” were now moving.

“Immigration New Zealand has a planning range, they are meeting that planning range; in the last 18-month planning range they issued 52,000 residencies, and that was within the planning range the government had set,” Lees-Galloway said.

“Immigration New Zealand are meeting the government’s expectations of issuing a number of visas within that planning range.

“The challenge we are having at the moment is that the number of applications coming in is much higher than expected, and that automatically means the wait is going to increase.

He denied that INZ was facing a staff shortage.

“Immigration New Zealand has put enough resources into the processing of residency visas to meet the government’s planning range, that’s what is asked of them and that’s what they are doing.”

Lees-Galloway said he had discussed a range of issues with migrant community leaders in Onehunga on Monday.

“We had a long conversation about all the challenges we’re facing at a time when the whole world is facing a massive global pandemic.

“And every country in the world is dealing with the question of border closures, who is able to travel in out of their country and obviously a lot of conversation about the impact that has had on people, and the real human impact that has had on people’s lives,” Lees-Galloway said.

He reiterated that the border closure was the “single best protection that New Zealand has against Covid-19”.

“The fact that we are doing such a good job makes us very popular and people all around the world – New Zealand citizens, people who hold residency visas, people who hold temporary visas – all want to come here because they see us as a progressive, successful country that has done a great job of suppressing the virus and where there’s a lot of opportunities.

“Obviously, in order to continue protecting everybody in the community that is here in New Zealand now, we have to limit the number of people that are able to come in to the country.”