Once A Refugee

May 25, 2020
Paul Janssen

Migrating is tough and anyone brave enough to do it will need to be prepared to face a myriad of obstacles; from leaving behind the familiar, hunting down a new job in a new environment, negotiating the legal complexities and then of course settling in to a new country. Add to all of this INZ’s fragmented and confusing visa processes, the very lengthy current Residence processing queues, and what was, as recently as 18 months ago, challenging, has now become something akin to Dante’s Inferno.

While, as advisers battling the system, we understand the pressures (mental and financial) of what it takes to get through this successfully as we live it alongside our clients on a daily basis, attempting to bring some sanity and balance; that doesn’t stop people from losing their nerve and on occasion their cool. Never more so than now with two years being quoted to allocate a resident visa application and the coronavirus turning everything on its head.

Every Residence Visa approval is therefore as much a cause for celebration for us as it is for our clients, even after the thousands we have achieved. Every now and then however, we get an application and a family through the process where the win is just that little bit more special and this week we had one such success.

It is a story worth reading (especially if you are feeling frustrated at sitting in INZ’s so called ‘managed queue’ right now).

Imagine trying to deal with all of the potential challenges, whilst also being handicapped from the start because of where you come from and the fact that once, more than a decade ago, you were brave enough to escape one country as a refugee, try and build a life in a hostile second country and then try and move to a third. You apply for the same Visas in New Zealand and pay the same fees as everyone else but you are singled out and treated differently – only because of your country of origin.

This week’s approval was for a client who found himself in that situation, besieged on all sides by a process that is hard for most but was uniquely challenging for him. Challenging for reasons that should have never been important if the immigration system is as ‘colour blind’ as it claims to be. Then try and imagine yourself overcoming all of those odds with a smile on your face.

We met Nico (full name withheld) over five years ago and it has taken blood (literally), sweat and a few tears over that time, for us to guide him to the summit of this visa ‘Everest’. His story would fill more than a couple of pages, but even the abbreviated version is worth telling.

Nico was born in the Congo and fled with his family to the relative ‘safety’ of South Africa in the late 90’s. Degree qualified in math and statistics he quickly found and took up a position teaching secondary school students his own joy of numbers. He and his family held temporary Visas for several years whilst awaiting the outcome of a refugee claim through the Department of Home Affairs. His claim left him and his family living in legal limbo for the eight years to process, living daily with the uncertainty all refugees feel. His claim was finally accepted and approved in 2008. Along with his wife and children Permanent Residence was granted. He later graduated in South Africa with a formal teaching qualification and built up a very respectable 20 year career in education.

Realising, as many have, that South Africa was slowly falling off a cliff, coupled with being the victim of a bungled (thankfully) aggravated robbery, he decided to once again take his family elsewhere. He secured registration in New Zealand as a Teacher and thought, as many do, that he would do well here, given the demand for his skills and New Zealand’s welcoming approach to migrants from all walks of life and backgrounds.

What he couldn’t have anticipated is the system isn’t quite as colour blind and without prejudice as it claims to be.

What he couldn’t have known was he fell on the wrong side of a very definitive, if unofficial, line with INZ. They would suggest that it’s always a matter of “each case on its merits” and a process of “complex individual assessments”, when the truth is somewhat darker. We call it profiling (you can decide which sort). From 2015 onwards, Nico would be questioned, tested, pushed, pulled and prodded through the system to extremes we seldom see, in most part because he is Congolese and being deemed to be a higher risk (of what you might ask?) but primarily because he was once (now no longer) a refugee. Nico was immediately tarred with an invisible brush.

His ordeal began when he made the decision to visit New Zealand to explore the country and establish whether or not it was the right move. Like many others before, he applied, on his own for a Visitor Visa to do just that. Thousands are issued every day for this purpose. INZ declined that Visa (promptly) because they doubted he would leave at the end of his stay; never mind the fact he was a permanent resident of South Africa, had a wife and four children to return to, along with a permanent and secure job and a solid history of complying with any Visa he had previously held. Not a great start but not an uncommon problem with this sort of Visa for this ‘sort’ of applicant.

Undeterred, he then secured an offer of employment in New Zealand and again applied on his own for a Work Visa. Should have been straight forward. Once more he was declined (again promptly) and this time INZ tried to use a character concern, based on the fact he never told INZ he was registered as a Teacher in NZ when he applied for his earlier Visitor Visa (the one that INZ declined anyway). INZ also suggested he appeared not to be a bona-fide applicant (always their last line of defence) because he might want to stay longer which, had he secured a further job and Visa, would have seen him eligible to do and how New Zealand has ultimately been topped up with skilled people we cannot produce enough of locally. By INZ’s definition, being skilled, having a job and filling a shortage in NZ was a reason not to give someone a Visa. Bizarre logic for anyone, even those not familiar with how inconsistent this process can be.

Trying to unravel why Nico was declined a Visitor Visa and then a Work Visa, despite being a genuine, skilled and very experienced potential migrant, there were a number of robust exchanges between ourselves and senior managers within INZ. We were in little doubt why the roadblocks were going up and whilst INZ argued as they always do that the process involves each case being assessed on its own merits, one response from one manager very much gave the game away….

“This applicant, from Congo, applied for an Essential Skills Work Visa on the basis of an offer of employment at XX College (name removed), to work as an assistant teacher…

…and he had attempted to remain long term in South Africa, the concern being that he may not depart New Zealand upon the expiry of his employment in New Zealand”

Why the reference to his being from the Congo when he had been living as a permanent resident in south Africa since 2008? If, as INZ says, cases are decided on their merits, why did this senior officer decide it was important or even relevant to mention that this applicant was from the Congo in the very first line? As a permanent resident of South Africa, of course he had “attempted to remain long term” there – that is the point of holding that status in South Africa just as it is in New Zealand. Would it have made a difference if he was born in South Africa, or perhaps came from the UK or Canada…of course it would and it is why his nationality and his history as a refugee was the first thought on INZ’s mind, they reached a conclusion and then worked backwards to find reasons to justify their pre-ordained conclusions. Hardly, ‘each case on its merits’ let alone following their own colour blind rules.

Several months after his own attempts to wrestle with INZ having has the first work visa declined, he secured another teaching position. At that point he called in the artillery (IMMagine) and we were formally retained to help him secure the Work Visa and it was approved. However, INZ were not going to make it any easier for his family to join him and set out to do all they could to prevent it.

This time INZ argued that his three daughters, all of whom secured Permanent Residence in South Africa through him and had an abundance of documentation to prove they were in fact his offspring, may not be his. You might want to read that again – they suggested his children, complete with birth certificates with their parent’s names on them and an abundance of other evidence, might not be his children.

We suggested to INZ if a DNA test might satisfy them. That’s right, a DNA test. Nico and his family literally had to give INZ DNA proof that they were all of the same lineage. Asking for a DNA test is incredibly rare and in my 16 years, I have seen it only on one other occasion and for very different reasons to this. Nico didn’t flinch and simply did what he had to do to prove what we all knew to be true. That took three month to deliver and satisfy the bureaucrats of.

After almost two years of back and forth, separated from his family for that whole time, Nico and his family were finally able to be in New Zealand together.

There was still the residence hurdle to overcome. Nico unfortunately struggled to secure just half a point needed to pass his English test (he obtained his teacher registration because his South African Bachelor of Education was taught in English but this doesn’t work for the visa).

We went to the Minister to try and get some common sense. After all, Nico was here, teaching, excelling, by all accounts a wonderful teacher and community man, had been granted Teacher registration which has a significantly higher standard of English than applies to a resident visas, so surely now was the time to cut the guy a bit of slack.

With all that INZ had thrown him, we thought the Minister might let that pass, considering Nico had over 12 months of experience in New Zealand already. Far lesser requests have been made and approved. Nico’s request was however passed back down the line from the Minister to the same people who had called him a liar, declined him twice and then asked him to draw blood more than once. Request denied.

While lesser, or perhaps less desperate men might have walked away, with that dogged determination still very much in place and after having attempted the English test more times that anyone would have the stomach for, Nico secured that elusive half a point and the Residence Visa was able to be filed.

Five years after commencing the process and over 18 months after arriving in New Zealand and despite the system throwing everything they could at him, Nico along with his wife and four children were this week, granted the Residence Visas they so very much deserve.

Despite INZ declining Nico and his family twice based on absurd reasoning and even if we ignore the fact they accused him of being a liar who might be smuggling in children to NZ that don’t belong to him, Nico managed to survive through all of it with a sense of poise and dignity that very few could muster.

When I called Nico this week, to deliver the good news, he thanked me, he thanked IMMagine, he thanked New Zealand and he surprisingly thanked the system. For the latter, he had every right not to and to be angry and bitter at their naked racism and stupidity. He had every right throughout his five year journey to do what many would and throw every toy out of his cot – likely in our direction – he didn’t and for that, this outcome is also special.

To anyone who says we let people walk into this country, to people who think we shouldn’t allow in more ‘refugees’ and to anyone who wants to believe that migrants ‘choose not to ‘assimilate’, this story is for you. It is also in a way for those clients and others, stuck in INZ’s queue, waiting for a decision on their outcome who don’t have the ‘handicap’ of Nico’s background and skin colour.

I believe New Zealand should say thank you to Nico and his family, because it is New Zealand that is benefiting from his energy, attitude, skills and experience as a Teacher (we are still thousands short believe it or not). We will benefit from his daughters, all currently studying towards degrees, thankful for this opportunity and who will go on to become highly skilled New Zealanders. And thank you to Nico’s youngest son who no doubt will do the same. A big thanks also needs to go to his wife, for standing by her man, her family and who was put through so much to bring us her skills – she is also a qualified Teacher.

INZ should, but won’t, take a long hard look in the mirror at how it treats those skilled migrants the Government still spends millions of dollars marketing this country to, because last time we looked it didn’t say it in the encouragement and words of ‘welcoming skilled migrants’ that black Africans need not apply. Shame on every single one of them from the Minister down.

Thank you Nico for sticking it out, not only in the face of the ordinary challenges like queues and delays that migrants must endure but for also dealing with those unadvertised and unsignalled obstacles that INZ decided applied only to you. To do so without so much as a single word of complaint and an enduring smile on your face is a testament to how lucky we are that you chose to make New Zealand home.

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