Following Kiwi-Indian MP Priyanca Radhakrishnan's assertion during our interview last week about giving a pre-warning to temporary migrants on the full consequences of the border closure, we have done a fact check for reader's and viewers benefit.

To give a little context, a multi-party immigration debate was hosted by the Indian Weekender (on Zoom) on Wednesday, October 7, with Labour MP Priyanca Radha Krishnan, National MP Stuart Smith and ACT Party candidate Dr James McDowall, discussing their respective party’s immigration plan for the next parliamentary term.

Among many interrelated issues, one of the important issues fiercely debated was the issue of temporary migrants stuck overseas due to border-closure.

Tens of thousands of temporary migrants who were ordinarily resident in New Zealand are currently stuck overseas after the government had announced border closure on March 19, and are now facing a grave risk of permanently losing their ability to return back to the country. So far both the Labour-led current government, and the main opposition National party both have remained equally evasive, and non-committal, on allowing back them into the country. 

When the Indian Weekender’s moderator made the point if the government would have been slightly more clearer to temporary migrants before closing borders irreversibly on them about the full consequences of border closure then some of them might have returned back timely – Radhakrishnan pushed back that such a warning was given by the government. 

“We couldn’t have done that… So we gave as much notice as possible,” Radhakrishnan said. 

“There was no notice for temporary visa holders,” the interviewer interjected. 

“No that’s untrue,” Radhakrishan affirmed. 

Both, the interviewer and Radhakrishnan stood ground affirming to follow-up later, although Radhakrishnan quickly clarified in the next sentence that there was a notice for everybody which said that if they want to come back as the borders were closing. 

Fact-checking: Chronology of decision on border closure

The earliest clear warning related to overseas travel was issued by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Winston Peters on March 19, advising New Zealanders not to travel overseas

“We are raising our travel advice to the highest level: do not travel,” Mr Peters had then said.

“This is the first time the New Zealand Government has advised New Zealanders against travelling anywhere overseas,” Mr Peters said. 

“Mr Peters has also urged all New Zealanders currently travelling overseas to consider returning home immediately,” the official press release from his office stated. 

This was shortly followed by an announcement by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern the same day on the national TV in her 4 pm Covid-address to the nation. 

“From 11.59 tonight, we will close our borders to any non-residents and citizens attempting to travel here. This will stop tourists, temporary visa holders, including students and temporary workers from coming to and entering New Zealand,” Prime Minister Ardern had then said. 

“NZ citizens and residents will be able to return. And of course, that includes children and partners of citizens and permanent residents,” Ardern said.

A quick analysis on how things unfolded around border closure

Undoubtedly, the government was given clear advice then by the Health Department to close the borders – an unprecedented event in NZ history – for everyone. 

As the health department was rightly focussed on offering a piece of advice to the government, which they believed was the best possible advice to keep everyone safe, the government had taken the conscious call to keep the borders open for permanent residents and citizens, and their partners. 

That decision was unequivocally supported by one and all, including the temporary visa holders, who were ordinarily residents in NZ, and were on the line to bear the maximum brunt of the border closure decision. 

While the decision, undoubtedly hard one, as it required to balance between mutually competing interests of - safety for everyone, and the rights of citizens and residents to return NZ - obviously appeared to be taken in disregard of the fact that there were at least around 200, 000 temporary migrants ordinarily living in the country.

Notably, the number of temporary workers in the country (mostly on different types of work visas) has consistently hovered around 200, 000 since last few years. 

According to a report released by MBIE (Ministry of Business, Innovation & Enterprise), the number of temporary workers present in New Zealand on June 30, 2017, was 16% higher than the year before at 152,432. Since then there had been more years with a significantly higher number of net-immigration. 

The government’s abrupt decision of border closure had clearly put the future of that vast number of temporary workers at risk and just a matter of luck, depending upon where they were right at that moment. 

Those who were travelling overseas, which according to government’s rough estimate are around tens of thousands – were simply unfortunate – and now locked out of NZ. 

The biggest risk they face is that with each passing day, their visas are expiring, making their huge investments of money, work, and efforts of creating a life in New Zealand permanently jeopardised. 

To be fair to the government, New Zealand was not the only country to take such a decision of border closure whereby leaving temporary visa holders locked out of the country. 

No political party willing to offer any relief to temporary migrants stuck overseas ahead of elections

Despite all criticism flaked by the government especially those seeking entry of temporary migrants stuck overseas back into the country, what is notable is the fact that with elections around the corner, none of the political parties, including the main opposition National Party has so far offered any promise for an early return into the country. 

The Indian Weekender’s immigration debate that involved National’s Stuart Smith and Act Party’s Dr James McDowall, along with Labour Priyanca Radhakrishnan heard an equally evasive and non-committal response, on this important issue from every party. 

Immigration portfolio, at best has been made subsidiary to the policy of border-management, in this election.