Migrants and temporary visa holders are clearly upset over the latest announcement of closing offshore visa processing offices.

Immigration New Zealand has quietly announced on Tuesday, February 23 to close offshore visa processing offices at Mumbai, Pretoria and Manila and scale back the work of the fourth office at Beijing.

INZ said that this decision of “right-sizing” their organisation was reflective of the current realities of NZ’s border-closure regime and the accompanied shortfall in the number of visa applications.

The decision was kept low-key and presented to the mainstream media as a cost-cutting operational decision by the immigration bureaucracy – supposedly not requiring any political oversight by the government of the day.

Expectedly, there was little hue and cry on this seeming rationale decision taken by an immigration bureaucracy, which is hoping to get the best outcome for everyone from this decision.

However, poor migrants and temporary visa holders, who actually have to deal with the immigration bureaucracy on a day-to-day basis, are clearly upset with the prospects of the outcome of the decision and how it can potentially make their life more difficult.

For temporary migrants, who are still engaging or planning to negotiate with immigration bureaucracy in the near future, any random closure of visa processing offices, are often signs of less interface, less engagement, less problem solving and therefore less service.

Last time when a similar bureaucratic decision about the closing of overseas offices was quietly pushed under the carpet by Immigration New Zealand in late 2017, the entire user experience with immigration bureaucracy was turned upside down.

INZ had then closed eight overseas offices at Ho Chi Minh, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Bangkok, New Delhi, Pretoria, Moscow and Shanghai - and two in New Zealand “to align and consolidate visa processing.”

Visa processing was also ceased in four other offices – Manila, Washington DC, London and Dubai – shifting the staff for other tasks such as market intelligence managing risk, carrying out verification activities and maintaining relationships with key partner countries.

Immigration NZ had then assured that the move was fiscally prudent and minimised risks in visa processing and, therefore in the best interest of the country.

Cleary, like now, then also there was no mention or reference to any impact on “user-experience” and “service-expectation of temporary migrants and visa hopefuls” who actually were the ones to bear all consequences of any changes in the system – operational or policy.

Gradually, within months, from mid-2018, the queues in front of the immigration offices started ballooning disproportionately, causing inordinate delays in visa processing in almost every visa category.

The public memory would still be afresh with the issue of partnership visa delays that saw thousands of visa hopefuls languishing in processing queues, sometimes more than seven to nine months before even a case officer could actually open their file.

The situation in the processing of Essential Skill Work visas, Skilled Migrant Category Visa was not far better with at one stage processing time for SMC category having reached 12-18 months.

As more and more people reached out to media and public protest against what they perceived as gross negligence and poor experience and raise their voice with the government, there began a political football about the shifting of responsibility between the government of the day and the previous government.

While the political-football continued with opposition National blaming the Labour government for visa delays and the Labour government blaming National for sitting over the bureaucratic decision of closing of overseas offices under their watch in the previous government – the plight of migrants had continued unabated.

In 2019, the issue of partnership visa delays further exasperated into a full-blown crisis when one of INZ’s offices started arbitrary interpretation of rules and requirements for partnership visas and categorically targeted relationships based on Indian marriages and rejecting the applications.

Information received under the Official Information Act (OIA) by the Indian Weekender revealed that INZ’s Mumbai office had then purportedly started different interpretation of requirements for partnership visa with an intention to clear the burgeoning queue.

The issue eventually witnessed intervention by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and the then Immigration Minister issued new immigration-instructions and re-opened about 1200 rejected partnership visa applications.

One of the major reason repeatedly advanced by political leaders in the government about visa delays in every category was the closure of INZ overseas processing offices, which was nicely sandwiched with the increase in demand for NZ visa and hence the increased number of visa applications.

INZ bureaucracy was then clearly caught off-guarded with the increased demand for NZ visa, in the months following immediately after the closure of visa processing centres.

Many observers and industry stakeholders had then asked why INZ bureaucracy was allowed to take such operational decision which has the potential to alter the policy of the government without any political oversight.

It is to say that the issue of partnership visa delays and abrupt decline of applications based on Indian marriages that emanated under a government self-indulging as a government of kindness has its roots in an operational decision taken by INZ in 2017 or closing overseas centres without having replaced with trained staff onshore. 

Regardless of the public debate and intense media scrutiny, and public pressure, only people who had to bear the consequences eventually and face prolonged separation from their near and dear ones, were poor migrants.

Therefore, they are again worried and upset now.

Like in 2017, this time also, there seems to be no political oversight or political messaging.

To make it worse, this closing down of overseas visa processing office is happening one year after border closure and the halt of international travel and drying up of revenue from international education.

It is not clear what is the government strategy towards those pre-Covid international education market.

Has New Zealand decided to pack its bag and leave those markets for good that were developed incrementally over the years?

At least, this is what many players in the international education market are panicking about and already making frantic calls to education providers onshore to ascertain if that was the political message of the government.

Indeed, no one has got a crystal ball to visualise how would the post-Covid world turn out to be, especially about international travel and export education, yet the message going out right now is that New Zealand has already decided to exit from those markets for good.

Even leaving aside the commercial side, the migrants and visa hopefuls keen to join their families onshore are likely to perceive this decision as a sign of New Zealand giving up on them.