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September 21, 2009 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Paper Borders

Empires used to build big walls to keep people out. The Persians built the ‘Red Snake’ wall in north-eastern Iran and the Romans erected three great walls in Great Britain. The Great Wall of China is visible from space.

Today, barriers of entry to the modern nation-state are paper thin. Immigration is an industry and passports are gold. Visas, work permits, residency and citizenship applications must be duly filled in, paid for and processed. Governments have the right to set quotas, target desirable groups of migrants and reject those they don’t like.

I leave the country in two months. Many of my friends are doing the same. We’re young, educated, alert, and we were born with a ticket to ride. New Zealand has a working holiday scheme with 15 European Union countries, seven countries across the Americas, and several through Asia. The ability to teach English opens up the borders of most of the rest.

There is no necessity behind our movements. I have no disadvantaged background, no war-gutted or corrupted country to leave in search of a better life. Once my overseas experiences are done, I’ll return home and settle, pay back my student loan and aim for my slice of the rapidly re-inflating New Zealand property bubble.

For a growing number of would-be New Zealand citizens, migration is a much more serious game. I have many friends who entered on student or working holiday visas and now want to make a permanent home here. The reasons vary. One friend fell in lust with, yes, our verdant scenery and clean environment. I have listened to others rave about our low levels of crime and corruption, and relative ease of employment. Several of my friends and a few of my taxi drivers felt as though they had no opportunities in the country of their birth.


From 25 July 2002 to 31 July 2009, the Department of Labour prosecuted 216 individuals for immigration-related fraud. Two hundred of these led to convictions, in relation to 1,125 offences.

Some particularly juicy examples have been produced in recent months. In August, former Labour MP Taito Phillip Field was awarded ‘first NZ politician convicted for bribery and corruption charges as an MP’ after accepting free labour from Thai tradesmen in exchange for immigration assistance.

Gerard Otimi, the leader of a South Auckland scam, was convicted after he allegedly offered to adopt thousands of Pacific Islanders into his hapu and sold false immigration certification at $500 a pop.

In an alleged scam in Ashburton, recruitment agencies offered farm placements to immigrant workers then confiscated their passports and a percentage of their pay on an ongoing basis. Similar allegations have been made by a Filipino nurse, and allegations of human trafficking have been laid on behalf of at least two Ukrainian sex workers in Auckland.

If the media is to be believed, immigration fraud is on the rise and the recession is to blame. As jobs dry up, pressure is placed on bosses to fire migrant workers first and residency approvals close off. The government has said that the current annual residency target of about 45,000 will not change, yet 3376 people were approved residency in July compared with 4442 in July last year.


Residency can be granted to foreigners if they prove they have been in a stable and genuine relationship with a New Zealand citizen for at least 12 months.

Married, civil union and de facto relationships are all eligible, though the latter is more difficult to prove.

According to Department of Labour spokesperson Rowan Saker, a total of 82 allegations of ‘false marriages’ were received between 1 November 2008 and 30 June 2009. Fifteen allegations are still being investigated, and of the remaining cases, no prosecutions were undertaken. ‘False marriage’ is not a specific offence under the Immigration Act 1987, but falls under section 142 of the Immigration Act—‘false or misleading information’.

There are scams and then there are scams. While some ‘fake marriages’ are set up as exploitative mass scams, I know several people who have agreed to a sham relationship for more altruistic reasons.

I asked Sarah*, 26, a New Zealand-born ‘sham wife’, to explain how her particular arrangement came about.

“Basically, through a friend of a friend,” she says, “I didn’t know the person at all. He wanted to stay in the country but wasn’t able to, and I was asked if I’d be willing to do something to help. They were just casting about for someone and I basically thought, why not?”

She was inspired by the experiences of others. “I’ve had other friends who’ve been studying here in similar situations. These are people in work, people who are contributing to the community. They want to stay for further study or for work but don’t get their visas granted, so have had to find another way in.”

Sarah prefers not to reveal the exact amount of money exchanges as part of the deal, but says it was “probably in the same sort of realm” as the payment for a visa application. She and John*, a student and part-time worker, are not living together, despite official statements to the contrary. As far as proof of the relationship goes, “I don’t handle the evidence side of things, that’s up to him.”

“The way I justify it to myself is that people working for the right kind of employer are able to get their employer to sponsor them. In this case, I’m a sort of personal sponsor. I’m vouching for that person in a personal rather than professional capacity.”

She doesn’t know why John’s visa was declined. “Something to do with where he’s from, the amount of money, and how long he was able to stay here on a student visa.”

Sarah believes the current immigration system is inconsistent. “The situation seems kind of dumb,” she says. “We’re not overpopulated yet, and I can see why we’d want to prevent that from happening, but there just seems to be little common sense or consistency in the way the service selects who gets to stay and who is denied.

“Money shouldn’t be the only measure. To move halfway across the world, you’ve got to be an overachiever to start off with, and I think if someone’s motivated enough for this, then they’ve obviously got lots of energy and drive and should be allowed to stay. Everyone in New Zealand came here as someone who wanted a better life, or is the descendent of someone who did. It just seems logical, really.”


Illegality should not be encouraged, but what if the rules are wrong? In 2002, Helen Clark formally apologised for the institutionally racist Chinese poll tax, an integral part of immigration policy in the late nineteenth century. Current immigration policy may one day be subjected to similar scrutiny.

In terms of service provision, the Government has admitted that Immigration NZ has major problems. In a 4 June press release, Immigration Minister Jonathon Coleman acknowledged that the “mess left by the last government is even worse than anyone thought”.

“Basically it’s a picture of a siloed organisation where people don’t talk to each other, the management practices are poor, and there’s a lack of standardisation in the way things are done across the service.”

As this article goes to press, parliament has remained under urgency to debate new immigration policy. Potential areas of concern are the degree of control given to immigration officers to decide on individual cases and the existence of review panels to which a migrant or refugee can appeal if they have concerns about a decision.

In a wider sense, the morality of the entire immigration system deserves a challenge. I’m no philosophy student, but two recent sci-fifilms raise some worrying questions.

In BBC production Code 46 (2003), starring Tim Robbins, intercity and international travel is restricted to the healthy, wealthy elite. The central government-cum-insurance agency only dishes out travel permits, or ‘papelles’, in exceptional circumstances.

In Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer (2008), impoverished Mexicans are implanted with telerobotic ‘nodes’ so they can work 12-hour shifts controlling robot workers inside foreign cities. Developed nations are able to enjoy all the benefits of a cheap migrant workforce without the nuisances of health care and education provision.

Neither film requires much of an imaginative leap. Global immigration policies already heavily favour the healthy, wealthy elite and the use of cheap foreign labour in offshore facilities is widespread. Migrante Aotearoa, a Filipino workers’ group, has recently raised concerns about the ‘disposal’ of migrant workers during the recession. Like the node workers in Sleep Dealers, workers were enticed to New Zealand while their labour was needed then dropped as soon as they became a potential burden.

Unless we are willing to accept fundamental inequality, it may be time to reconsider the way we view our immigration system. Unless change occurs quickly, altruistic acts of immigration fraud may be the only way forward. Kia ora Sarah, kia ora.


About the Author ()

Nina Fowler (BA), former Salient feature writer, is excited about Salient '10.

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