Patrick Gower: Should 344,000 foreigners on temporary visas stay or go?

OPINION: There has been plenty made of the "team of 5 million" - but how do 344,000 foreigners on temporary visas fit into this team? 

Yes, there are 344,000 foreigners in New Zealand, many are temporary workers who thought they were on a path to permanent residency. 

Now, all bets are off - and they are all in limbo. 

The Government is already telling them to consider going back to where they came from.

This includes 201,000 on work visas, many of who came here to do jobs in the pre-COVID economy.

There is a huge question facing New Zealand - do they stay or do they go?

I think both the foreigners and the country need a clear answer.

The 'temporary workers' are all real people and they need to plan. They deserve to be treated better and given a clear response.

The country also needs to plan as to whether these 344,000 people are part of our economy and society.

If they stay, they may take up jobs that Kiwi citizens now need. And if those jobs aren't there, they may have to go on welfare, at a big cost to the taxpayer.

But making them go is harsh - many have been living and working in New Zealand, paying their taxes and doing essential jobs during the pandemic. They have put down roots, thinking they are on a pathway to citizenship.

During Monday's episode of The Project, we looked at some overstayers from Tonga now stuck in New Zealand. They had a strong argument, but the issue is so much bigger than unofficial overstayers. 

The number of foreigners here officially on temporary visas is simply huge. It is what I call "the 344,000 person question". 

Alongside the 201,000 work visas, official figures show there are another 8000 temporary workers from the Pacific; 25,000 on working holiday visas; and 109,000 on student or visitor visas. 

On top of this 344,000, there are the overstayers. Then there are up to 11,000 people currently overseas with temporary visas who got locked out when the borders closed, but are trying to come back in.

At the moment, the Government is telling them to get going, or try their luck getting a new visa. The message is pretty clear.

During the lockdown, all temporary Visa-holders were given an extension until September 25.

That is effectively a state of limbo - they don't know where they stand and they deserve better. We need to be more human, and just be upfront.

If they don't go by then, the big decision comes. 

Are we harsh, or are kind? Are they part of the team of 5 million - or not? 

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