It is time for New Zealand to seriously contemplate whether the issue of migrant families being torn-apart by selectively closed borders is escalating into a full-blown human rights issue.

For many proud Kiwis, who largely remain besieged under the weight of anxiety of their own well-being and besotted with the government’s overarching Covid-19 related messaging and therefore oblivious to the plight of migrants and their families, who have made huge investments to live and work in this country – even such a suggestion might be a bit repudiating.

However, the fact remains that thousands of migrant families remain separated one year after New Zealand’s borders were closed in March 2020 with no hope and respite in immediate sight.

Immigration Adviser & Community Law Expert Katy Armstrong is calling it a human rights issue 

There are so many heart-wrenching stories where migrants – both temporary migrants with limited legal rights and new residents and citizens with adequate legal rights – have been struggling to get their families into the country in the lead up to Covid-19 lockdown and border closure.

The covid-19 has only exacerbated the crisis which was brewing up in the previous few years due to the way the immigration system has been working in this country.

The onset of a global pandemic was an opportunity for rising above and beyond many of our contemporary peer nations across the world. However, it is sad to see that New Zealand is slowly wandering on a slippery slope that can potentially put an irreversible blot on the reputation of being a modern, liberal, kind and considerate nation located in a remote corner of the world.

Noted licensed immigration adviser and long-time industry advocate Katy Armstrong has been one of the prominent voices seeking urgent attention of the wider civic society and the government on this fast-developing humanitarian issue beneath our eyes.

“I believe the issue to date with the coverage of the border issues and separated families is that they are seen somewhat in isolation,” Katy said.

“There is a bigger picture here … [where] migrant rights are becoming more and more marginalised.”

“I have never seen migrants feeling so disenfranchised and voiceless,” Katy said about how the issue of migrant families torn apart by closed borders was playing out in the public narrative.

The government thus far has been conveniently hiding behind the pretext of closed borders, limited MIQ facility and the prioritising seamless travel of citizens over the migrants as the overarching limiting reason for keeping migrant families separated.

“What we have right now is not closed-borders but rather managed borders where the rights of migrants and their families are being systematically squeezed,” Katy said.

“What the government’s actions have effectively done since March 19 last year is send a strong message to the public reinforcing that migrants are lesser than [citizens] at a time when migrants have been feeling their most vulnerable.  Which is at odds with a government that has gained international acclaim for kindness and compassion”.

Does NZ have any commitment towards migrant’s right to family reunification?

It is important to acknowledge that New Zealand has a strong history of protecting and promoting human rights both at home and internationally.

The country is a proud leader within international space in the advocacy of human rights and realising the rights of minority populations.

In fact, the current Jacinda Ardern government has formulated New Zealand’s International Human Rights Action Plan 2019-2023 after a prolonged domestic consultation to align its global voice on human rights issues with domestic priorities. It has prioritised the rights of people with disabilities, the rights of women and girls, LGBTQI plus issues and abolishing the death penalties.

Previously, NZ has been a signatory to seven of the nine main treaties and conventions demonstrating commitment towards robust human rights protection and advocacy, including the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

However, there are many ILO conventions and protocols that are not yet ratified by New Zealand and that includes C143 - Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention, 1975 (No. 143), which touches upon the issue of migrants’ right to family reunification.

Migrants right to family reunification is a fairly developed right and expressly recognised in contemporary human rights law (although as a secondary right). Family reunification of migrants is the social and legal process of reuniting migrants with their families in the host state.

According to Article 44 of the Migrant Workers Convention, states are required to “take appropriate measures to ensure the protection of the unity of the families of migrant workers”, and “take measures that they deem appropriate and that fall within their competence to facilitate the reunification” of the migrant workers’ families.

Notably, previous NZ governments have considered the right to family reunification to be one of the barriers to the ratification of the Migrant Workers Convention.

In that regard, it is apparent that there might not be any unmet obligations of international law upon New Zealand when it comes down to honouring the migrant rights to family reunification.

However, uniting migrant workers with their families living in the countries of origin is recognised to be essential for the migrants’ well-being and their social adaptation to the receiving country.

Prolonged separation and isolation lead to hardships and stress situations affecting both the migrants and the families left behind and prevent them from leading a normal life.

The large numbers of migrant workers cut off from social relations and living on the fringe of the receiving community create many well-known social and psychological problems that, in turn, largely determine community attitudes towards migrant workers.

It is this collective societal commitment towards the migrant workers that community law expert Katy Armstrong is asking the New Zealand government to fulfil.

“We need to honour migrant’s basic human right to allow them to live with their families – Covid or no Covid.

“New Zealanders need to understand our branding as a kind, humane, fair and reasonable society is at stake and that within the confines of a “closed” border, we still have the means to more equitably balance the competing needs,” Katy said.

Currently, there is a large cohort of migrants who have been forced to live in separation from their immediate families (partner & children), in some cases for years, and they are largely falling through cracks because of negligence and not the intent. Or maybe!