Immigration Minister Michael Wood to check policy to get Ukrainians to New Zealand 'working as intended' after concern raised

The new Immigration Minister is planning to look into whether the Government's policy to help Ukrainians seek shelter in New Zealand is "working as intended".

The 2022 Special Ukraine Policy was announced in March by former Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi. A press release issued at the time said it would benefit "around 4000 people".

However, more than three months later, and as the war in Ukraine rages on, only 216 people have arrived in New Zealand under the category.

World Vision says it shows the Government has created a policy that is "not fit for purpose" as the criteria is "too tight" and makes Ukrainians arriving in New Zealand rely on their sponsors for support in the middle of a cost of living crisis.

The policy allows Ukrainian-born New Zealand citizens and residents to sponsor immediate family members to come to Aotearoa. Successful applicants receive a two-year work visa and children can attend school.

But while the Government touted that it would benefit 4000 people, the number coming here so far is much smaller.

As of June 18, Immigration NZ (INZ) has received 902 sponsorship requests and 929 visa applications under the category. It's granted 789 visas and 216 people have arrived in New Zealand. 

Once a visa has been granted, the recipient has nine months to come to Aotearoa. They must make their own travel arrangements. 

In a statement, Michael Carley, the acting general manager border and visa operations, said the Government announced up to 4000 family members "may be eligible" to enter New Zealand "although the actual number is likely to be lower". 

Immigration Minister Michael Wood, who took over the portfolio after Faafoi announced his retirement from politics last week, told Newshub on Wednesday that he wanted to take a close look at the policy. 

"I've been advised that around about 880 visas have been approved from that category. Obviously, not all of those people have arrived yet, but it's a considerably higher number than those who have. 

"I'm obviously in my first week in the portfolio, and this is a matter that I have signalled to officials that I do want to discuss over the coming week or two to understand that the policy is working as intended."

Immigration Minister Michael Wood.
Immigration Minister Michael Wood. Photo credit: Newshub.

World Vision and Mahi for Ukraine conducted a survey recently of 200 Ukrainians living in New Zealand. It found a third hadn't applied for the special visa due to barriers, like a lack of support when their loved ones touched down in Aotearoa.

Rebekah Armstrong, World Vision's head of advocacy and justice, told Newshub that it was a huge financial cost to put on sponsors in New Zealand amid the current cost of living pressures.

"We found that there are huge barriers around the cost of living that prevented people from coming here or preventing people being able to sponsor their family members here. So the cost of living, the cost of housing in New Zealand, and even the cost of flights were too expensive."

She would like to see those who arrive here receive assistance to get into work as well as English lessons. Government should also partner with community service agencies and churches to help the Ukrainians find accommodation, furnish homes and have social interaction, she said.

Another issue is the criteria, Armstrong said. Only immediate family members - parents, grandparents, siblings and adult children - can be sponsored. 

"You can imagine in a war situation, you don't want to leave everyone behind, especially if you're going to come on to the other side of the world," she said.

"We found that Ukrainians have a really similar concept of whānau as we do. They often live in the same kind of apartment building or neighbourhood as their extended family members. That's a huge barrier as well." 

She would like to see extended family welcomed as well. Ukrainian Kiwi Valeriya Amelichkina made a similar call earlier this year. 

"My sister is lucky enough to be legally allowed to come to New Zealand but for example, there could be some families or nephews who have lost their parents and some of them may not be able to bring them in an easy way to New Zealand," she said.

"Some people can be so distressed and it's horrible what is happening right now. I have a very vivid imagination and I cannot imagine this happening in the 21st century. "

INZ's Carley said there are "no current plans to change the criteria" of the visa. Each immediate family member who is sponsored to come to New Zealand "can also include their partners and dependent children in their visa application".

"We recognise that in limited and exceptional situations there may be circumstances outside of the eligibility criteria that could be considered, and we would encourage anyone who is in this situation to submit an expression of interest for consideration. These would be reviewed and, if appropriate, escalated for a decision on a case-by-case basis."

Wood said he believed the policy was a "good response".

"It provides a relatively simple way of people being able to come here and have that support because it is linked to people who have family here at the moment. 

"But as I say, over the next couple of weeks, as I get fully briefed on the portfolio, it is one of those specific areas that I want to check into to ensure that we're meeting the objectives and supporting as many people as we reasonably can."

The Government also needs to provide support to other refugees, Wood said. On Monday, World Refugee Day, he confirmed it was expected New Zealand would reach its refugee quota of 1500 refugees for the first time. It hasn't been met due to COVID-19 disruptions.