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NZ discriminating against disabled people – NGOs

Ahead of New Zealand’s review with the United Nation Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, non-governmental organisations highlight what they say is a clear pattern of discrimination by the country pertaining to immigration from the Pacific.

Disability rights organisation Fusi Alofa Association Tuvalu (Fusi Alofa), Tuvalu Climate Action Network (TuCAN) and the International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination (ICAAD) submitted a Shadow Report to the Committee.

The report stated that New Zealand was failing to meet its international obligations under article 16 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), by discriminating on the basis of disability in immigration proceedings in the Pacific Access Category.

However according to the NGOs, New Zealand’s immigration agency, Immigration NZ, has told the UN it does not record whether its residency applications are declined on health and disability grounds.

The resident visa scheme was offered to people from Samoa, Fiji, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Tonga, including their partners and dependent children, to settle in New Zealand each year.

People with disabilities boarding planes in Tuvalu. Ahead of New Zealand’s review with the United Nation Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, non-governmental organisations highlight what they say is a clear pattern of discrimination by the country pertaining to immigration from the Pacific. Picture: Fusi Alofa Association

“We know that New Zealand distinguishes between health and disability because when reviewing an application, it looks at the threat to public health, costs to health services, and the ability to work or study based on the applicant’s visa. These factors, combined with limited oversight and broad discretion, create a pervasive system of discrimination,” said Erin Thomas, Policy and Research Coordinator at ICAAD.

The report points to examples of discretionary patterns by Immigration NZ. In one case, a family, including a physically disabled child, applied for a visa under the Pacific Access Category.

The process was delayed until the parents removed the disabled son from the application. The rest of the family were granted visas shortly after, while the son remains in Tuvalu.

There were numerous cases where applying groups removed applicants with disabilities and were subsequently granted visas. Even reapplying can be prohibitive, costing more than $1000 dollars for the process each time.

“If the Pacific Access Category is not meant for people with disabilities, the Government should say so. There is no reference to disability being a restricting factor, yet that is the pattern we are seeing. This is discrimination,” said Taupaka Uatea, Office Manager at Fusi Alofa.

To protect the rights of disabled persons, NGOs have asked the committee to repeal parts of the Immigration Act 2009 which prohibit immigration-related complaints to the Human Rights Commission; and provide a pathway for filing discrimination complaints.

According to the Fusi Alofa Association families had to leave behind disabled members in order to migrate to New Zealand. Picture: Fusi Alofa Association

They have recommended removing sections of the Acceptable Standard of Health (ASH) policy that reference disability as imposing prohibitive costs and remove a section of the ASH medical waiver policy so that, should disability remain on the list of cost-prohibitive medical conditions, it at least be removed from the list of excluded circumstances for medical waivers.

It has been recommended that application fees under the Pacific Access Category should be either reduced or removed given that the scheme falls under the international humanitarian visa stream, and track reasons for declining residency applications specifically under health and disability grounds.

Following the committee’s review, a final report will be issued with recommendations for New Zealand pertaining to its compliance with the convention.

Richard Gorkrun, Network Director from TuCAN, said “We hope that New Zealand takes this process as an opportunity to improve the way it reviews immigration applications. Immigration from the Pacific Access Category is only going to increase in the face of the climate crisis. The government can take concrete steps to ensure that individuals hoping to become residents in this country are treated fairly, and with dignity.”

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern during a visit to a Pacific nation. Picture: NZ High Commission Suva

People with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts. NGOs urge New Zealand to consider that fair and formal entry of disabled persons to the country would be an initial step towards migration as an adaptation option.

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“Some have voiced that the Pacific Access Category is a pathway for climate migration to New Zealand. If that is so, then it is even more important to ensure there is no discrimination based on disability,” said Mr Taupaka.

“It is deeply concerning that people with disabilities are being excluded from this scheme, as they will have limited options if their home country becomes unlivable in the coming decades. New Zealand can and should be doing more to protect vulnerable populations.”

Questions have been sent to New Zealand Immigration but remain unanswered.

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