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COMMENTARY: Compassion and common sense key to Chris Hipkin’s response to question of overstayers

COMMENTARY: Even as Prime Minister Chris Hipkins studies an appeal by Pacific Island community leaders to help overstayers become citizens, Tongans are being given conflicting messages by government departments.

Stephen Paea dreams of playing professional basketball but now faces an uncertain future Photo: Stephen Paea (via RNZ)

As Kaniva News reported earlier, in February this year Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said he would consider a petition to Parliament calling for the government to open a pathway to citizenship for overstayers.

The Prime Minister made the announcement three years after the petition was submitted.

It is estimated there are over 10,000 overstayers living under the radar in New Zealand. Most of them are from the Pacific Islands.

Immigration New Zealand’s response to their presence often seems unjust. It does not appear to matter whether people chose to be overstayers or whether that are being punished for something their parents did.

Take the case of aspiring basketballer Stephen Paea.

The 19 year-old has been denied citizenship because he arrived in New Zealand as a two year old and his parents became overstayers.

According to a report  by Radio New Zealand, he only found out he was classified as an overstayer after he finished high school.

Even though he was brought here by his parents as an infant, the government regards him as an illegal migrant.

This is utterly absurd. It would mean the government could deport him, even though he has done nothing wrong.

New Zealand has followed the same polices as Australia and the United States in deporting criminals to Tonga, even if they have absolutely no connection with the kingdom. Under the present laws they could deport children simply because of choices their parents made.

The New Zealand Herald reported that between 2013 and 2018, New Zealand deported 120 criminals to Tonga.

The Herald quoted one deportee to Tonga as saying: “I’ve never been here before [as an adult]. I don’t speak the language. I grew up as a Kiwi. I don’t know how to live here. I just want to go home.”

Nobody is suggesting that Stephen Paea is a criminal. He is a young man with a passion for basketball who believed all his life he was a Kiwi.

To deny him citizenship is absurd. It is stupid. It is unjust. In the long run it does New Zealand no good because it denies him a chance to contribute to the country as an adult, on the court or off, to pay taxes and make a home here.

Children of overstayers are among the most vulnerable. Even if they are born here, a law passed in 2006 denies them citizenship.

This means they are not eligible for Plunket and Child Health Services and would have to pay full international fees for tertiary education..

Unitec researcher Dr Hoa Thi Nguyen, who helped survey the experiences of Tuvaluan overstayers, said New Zealand lost out by giving children of overstayers a chance to contribute formally to the economy.

And yet the government has shown that – when ambarrassed into action – it can display common sense and be compassionate.

1news has reported that a Tongan woman cares for her blind husband has been given a six-month visa in an abrupt turnaround by officials after 1News revealed she faced deportation because INZ didn’t believe their marriage was legitimate.

1News reported on the plight of Mele Langi, who has struggling since 2017 to settle her immigration status. Her husband of six years, Alamoni, is a New Zealand resident and relies on her as a companion and caregiver.

Once the couple went public, INZ announced it had given her a six months’ visitor visa so she could submit a residence application.

INZ said it had changed her residency status because of “humanitarian circumstances.” It was a sensible decision.

So here are some questions for the Prime Minister while he is considering the Pacific community leaders’ petition.

If Immigration New Zealand can make a sensible and compassionate decision about Mele Langi, why can’t it be similarly sensible about Stephen Paea? Why can’t he and other young people in the same position be treated with common sense and made citizens?

Why can’t the government repeal the 2006 legislation?

Does New Zealand really want to be lumped in with countries like Australia and the United States, whose immigration policies, deportations and detention camps, have been so widely condemned?

Why can’t New Zealand do the right thing and look at examples from countries like Ireland and Portugal and make a path for overstayers to become citizens of New Zealand?

Over to you, Prime Minister.

For more information

Aspiring basketballer could face deportation to Tonga

Blind man’s wife gets visa reprieve after facing deportation

Blind man’s wife facing deportation after INZ rejection

Research shows devastating effects overstayers face

New Zealand overstayer on what it’s like living a secret life