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The newly-formed Migrant Community Reference Group, announced by Minister of Immigration Michael Wood, gives migrant communities across New Zealand a say in shaping future immigration policy.

But it is also an admission by the government that the voice of the migrant communities was hitherto absent from the process.

By going public with such an admission, the Labour Government perhaps hopes to harvest the goodwill of migrant communities en bloc in the lead-up to the general election in October.

That said, the move to provide a forum for migrant communities to shape immigration policy must not be allowed to instil a false sense of empowerment in those who were never consulted on the process in the past.

That might very easily become the case if the representatives shortlisted by the immigration department, to voice the concerns of their respective communities on the new panel, lose touch with their mission or are out of sync with the communities they represent or, worse, end up at cross purposes with one another.

That would result in the farcical spectacle of the Migrant Community Reference Group emerging as a gaggle of disparate voices, a multilingual Tower of Babel that would only leave migrant communities rudderless and in disarray.

The ingredients for this recipe of confusion are already alluded to when Immigration Minister Wood stresses that “the members have diverse backgrounds and deep ties to their communities and come highly recommended from their prior engagements across multiple government agencies.”

The Group will meet quarterly to strategise the minister’s “medium-term priorities for the immigration system,” alongside other stakeholders who will include employers and workers.

But the government has also said “the Group will not replace any regular engagement with migrant communities around the country, but will supplement it.” This means the government’s announcement of the establishment of a body to shape immigration policy is not clear on whether its decisions will be binding.

 In other words, the statutory status (or the lack thereof) of the Migrant Community Reference Group is in no doubt.

If it has no statutory powers to implement the immigration policy that it helps shape, the Group will likely end up a toothless entity that was set up to mollify migrant sentiment, an act of tokenism by the government in anticipation of an impending general election. The minister’s lofty expression that “Our Government values the unique perspective migrants can provide on the immigration system” will then amount to mere poll-eve rhetoric.

But for now, good intentions must prevail, with the Group’s membership reflecting a truly eclectic mix of voices across migrant communities, which include Filipino, Vietnamese, Indian, South African, Chinese, Singaporean and Pasifika. The panel’s composition will be reviewed after 12 months.

 The Group is tasked with “sharing what’s important to the migrant population they represent,” as well as reporting “back on the discussions” to those populations. The Terms of Reference restrain the Group from interfering with “Ministerial engagement with stakeholders of the immigration regulatory system.” This means the Group is allowed to review or recommend immigration policy, but not empowered to change or tinker with it.

The power to reform the immigration system still vests solely with the regulatory authority.

In effect, the Group is a quasi-government layer added to the existing immigration bureaucracy, minus its authority.

But the Ministry of Business and Innovation (MBIE) will provide “limited secretarial support” to the Group, meaning it will be a conduit between the Group and the Minister of Immigration, who will be brought up to speed on its activities, including attendance at meetings.

The formation of the Group may be viewed as the first step towards a much-needed image-laundering of the NZ immigration system amid growing global competition.

Worker shortages across sectors are piling the pressure to step up immigration amid concerns about infrastructure capacity. Frustration around immigration processing is high.

The age-old habit of demonising migrants during economic downturns or over housing market vagaries remains embedded in the wider society, breeding toxic politics around immigration that the government of the day is overly sensitive to, especially given an approaching election.

It is significant that Immigration Minister Wood has harped on “medium-term perspectives” while setting up the Group.

The real challenge, however,  is getting the longer-term perspectives on immigration right.

public interest journalism


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