National security checks force lengthy visa delays on Chinese PhD students

An immigration lawyer said at least 20 students had been waiting months, and in some cases more than a year.
An immigration lawyer said at least 20 students had been waiting months, and in some cases more than a year. Photo credit: Getty Images

By Lucy Xia for RNZ

National security checks (NSC) have created long delays for some Chinese PhD students wanting to study in New Zealand.

Immigration New Zealand requires NSCs to be conducted for visa and residency applicants who may pose a risk to national security - including those with links to extremist groups and espionage activities.

An immigration lawyer said at least 20 students had been waiting months, and in some cases more than a year, for decisions on their visa applications due to the slow NSC process.

The students, who had already been enrolled, were forced to work towards their PhD offshore while they waited - many unable to conduct their research experiments.

Out of the group of students, 13 were on Chinese government scholarships, most of them were studying in science and engineering faculties.

Plea for govt to make NSC process more transparent

A chemical engineering student enrolled at the University of Auckland, who only wants to be known as Emily due to privacy concerns, said she had been waiting one year and four months for her student visa, due to security checks.

"I really hope the New Zealand government can tell me what the NSC check is checking, and NSC's progress, and [that] the New Zealand government make NZC progress more transparent," she said.

Her field of research was coating and marine corrosion prevention, and she had been unable to do her experiments due to the lack of access to laboratories.

Emily said she had had no work experience in China and considered her own background to be very normal.

Her supervisor, Professor Gao Wei, said he had five other Chinese PhD students in a similar situation.

"In my opinion, they shouldn't be targeted, we don't do any military studies, all ordinary industrial applications, related to the national economy, related to environmental protection, and green energy applications," he said.

Wei said the delays were harming the students and the industries that depended on their research.

'Their way is treating us like criminals' - student

On behalf of several lecturers, Associate Professor Tang Lihua from University of Auckland's engineering department wrote to Immigration Minister Michael Wood in late February to demand an explanation for the delays.

But they had not heard back from the minister to date.

Another student enrolled in an engineering programme at the University of Auckland has also waited almost one and a half years for his visa.

The student, who did not want to be named, has a scholarship with the Riddet Institute, a food research centre in New Zealand involving several universities.

He said he had given immigration officials 10 years of education history and had had no explanation for the delay.

"They never told me the real reason, they just told me that my application required further verification, require further information," he said.

Another student whose research focuses on clean energy said it was senseless that he had been waiting for almost a year for his visa, while his friends who applied to universities in Europe had received theirs within two months.

"I think that what happens to me is meaningless and hopeless, so I will not recommend New Zealand to my friends.

"I have to say that their way is treating us like criminals," he said.

Lawyer challenges legality of what seem to be blanket checks of Chinese students

Immigration lawyer Harris Gu said people should not be singled out for security checks solely based on their nationality.

He has written to immigration officials, challenging the legality of what appear to be blanket checks of Chinese students.

"It's unlawful for INZ to standardise NSC checks without going through their individual circumstances.

"To be honest I think it's quite disgraceful, because these PhD students are coming to New Zealand to make a real contribution, and INZ is delaying everything without telling them the reason," he said.

Meanwhile, Immigration Minister Michael Wood would not say whether the students' nationality or the fact that some had Chinese government scholarships triggered the long security checks.

He said most student visa applications took 26 working days, but those requiring additional verification could take longer.

Wood said INZ has had targets for processing visas and that he was actively monitoring the agency's performance against these targets.

He said he understood that INZ was working to help facilitate student visas as quickly as possible, while protecting the integrity of the immigration system.

Immigration New Zealand would not say how many Chinese PhD students had been waiting for more than six months for visas.

It also refused to say whether science, technology and engineering students were regarded as a high security risk.

The Guardian has previously reported that hundreds of Chinese postgraduate candidates in STEM subjects in Australia were facing lengthy visa delays, and were being deemed as a high security risk by the Department of Home Affairs.