Security check sees some residency applications delayed

Source: 1News

More than 60,000 people have recently become New Zealand residents through a fast-tracked process. But, the rate at which decisions are being made doesn't appear to be even between nationalities.

A work visa application form - stock image.

Immigration New Zealand data released to 1News show the status of applications - which could include one or more people - for the top 10 nationalities that have applied for the one-off 2021 Resident Visa. The applications from these countries make up approximately 80% of total applications.

About 26% of all Chinese applicants had their residency approved, but 73% were still waiting for a decision - the highest among the top 10 nationalities.

Fiji and the Philippines had the second highest pending application rate at 68% of all applicants from each of the respective countries. The approval rates for the countries were about one-third.

In comparison, 93% of all British applicants have received approval and 3% are waiting for a decision.

With days to go until applications for the visa category closed, Immigration New Zealand has received more than 100,000 applications containing 200,000 people. More than 30,000 applications - about 63,000 people - have been approved as of early July.

Applications opened in phases from December to March.

What's behind the statistics?

Immigration New Zealand said, to date, about 90% of applications received between December and February had been processed, and it was making "good progress" on applications received from March.

When asked about the difference in rates between applicants of different nationalities, a spokesperson said it could vary depending on when people applied, if extra information was needed, and any extra checks like health or character.

"The time taken to make a decision depends on a number of factors, including how long each task takes to complete, if manual assessments are required [and] if we have to wait for information from an applicant.

"Once checks are done people can expect to see the number of applications processed significantly increase."

Others suggested that some groups of people seemed to be subject to an additional process that could add anywhere between a few weeks to months to their residency application.

In an interview with Q+A last month, National's immigration spokesperson Erica Stanford said the difference in the rate of approvals depending on where an applicant was from was because "Immigration New Zealand are making them do a National Security Check".

"They do that with certain countries. They've got a secret list - they don't tell anyone but you can pretty much work out who's on it - and they make them do an extra security check," she said.

"That security check takes months and months… so that's why you see Chinese applicants and a few others as well. And they're, rightly, pretty upset about it."

A spokesperson for Stanford declined a further interview with 1News about the matter.

National security checks are carried out by the country's security intelligence service. As part of the check, visa applicants provide information about their full work and study history, as well as any involvement they have had with military and intelligence organisations.

Nicola Hogg, Immigration New Zealand's general manager of visa operations, said about 12% of 2021 Resident Visa applications received to the end of June have required national security checks.

"These checks may be required for a range of reasons, and the time it takes to complete a NSC varies depending on the applicant and their circumstances," Hogg said.

"Within the timeframe of a visa application being considered, the vast majority of 2021 Resident Visa category NSCs are turned around within six months, with only a very small number of cases taking longer."

She said there had been no change in the average time it took to carry out the checks.

1News asked for the criteria that would trigger such a check and whether all applicants from certain countries were placed under a blanket requirement to complete it.

In response, Immigration New Zealand said it couldn't give further details about national security checks. It cited section 6A of the Official Information Act that said the information could be withheld if it was likely to prejudice New Zealand's security, defence, or international relations.

Part 8 of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch terrorist attack stated: "Immigration New Zealand rely on national security instructions to determine if a visa applicant requires a national security check before their visa application can be processed.

"The national security instructions include a list of countries or territories of possible security concern, including those known for extremism. This list is primarily focused on people who have connections with African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries."

Other attempts to obtain this list of countries via the OIA had also been refused under section 6A.

Immigration Minister Michael Wood also told 1News he couldn't go into the details of what would trigger a national security check because of security reasons.

In response to Stanford's comments, Wood said the checks had been in place since the last Government, and the existing process had been in place for a long time.

As for why 12% of 2021 Resident Visa applications were required to do the check, he said there wasn't a target figure for checks. Instead, it was based on who was applying.

"It's a basic check that we have in place to ensure when we do grant people the privilege of New Zealand residency, that we do have confidence they are going to be fit and proper people to be residents in our country and we keep New Zealand safe.

"So, it's a really important part of the process."

Immigration lawyer calls for transparency

Arran Hunt, an immigration lawyer at Stace Hammond, said having to complete a national security check could delay an application anywhere between a few weeks to up to six months for one client.

However, there was little transparency about how long it could take and what actually triggered it, he said.

Hunt said, at times, it appeared it was because of his clients' nationality or their parents' if they were from China, Sri Lanka, Pakistan or Russia.

"The irony is that, say eight or nine years ago, you had a list on the wall of the countries that require NSA… now it's all coded into the system. But, we can work out what most of those countries are."

Security checks had always been part of residence applications. But, because of the volume of applications for the one-off residency pathway, it was even easier to figure it out when people started comparing their experiences, Hunt said.

He said that was why he didn't buy the immigration agency's argument for keeping the list secret.

Hunt said more clarity from the Government could help reduce the stress people face when applying for residency because they'd get a better idea about what might be needed of them.

"If you're going to be profiling people based on their citizenship, at least give us something - who is being asked and why are they being asked? Not just a 'we're going to do another six-month process, and we're not going to tell you why'."

It's about security, lawyer says

Ken Huang, an immigration lawyer at Lane Neave, said the vast majority of people who went through a national security check completed it with no issues.

Huang said the checks usually took between three to five months, and that this seemed to be consistent no matter what country an applicant was from.

From his experience, he said Immigration New Zealand had an internal list of individuals, groups and countries that would set off the process for a national security check.

"In addition to China, we've seen people from other countries [be checked], for example, Sri Lanka, Russia, Zimbabwe, Israel, Hong Kong SAR, Turkey and Afghanistan."

Huang, who had a client base of people from different countries, said he "wouldn't use the word 'inconsistency'" for who was required to go through the check.

That was because Immigration New Zealand was only acting to facilitate the process and that it was the security agency requiring and doing the security checks, he said.

Huang said the checks were ultimately about ensuring New Zealand's security.

"It's just like the fact that when each of us goes to the airport, we go through a security screening. This is the same idea as that."

The Government announced the one-off 2021 Resident Visa in September last year in the face of mounting criticism over its backlog of expressions of interest for the Skilled Migrant Category visa.

At the time, the Government said the vast majority of applications to the visa category would be decided by the end of 2022. That was later extended by six months when the scheme proved more popular than the Government forecast. It was also plagued by delays and resulted in hours-long queues outside medical centres for specialised health checks.

The scheme, designed to fill the country's critical labour shortages, is available to most work-related visa holders if they meet a set of criteria. Applications close on July 31.