Fears city could miss out on skilled immigrants

Members of Dunedin's immigrant community say the closure of the Dunedin Immigration Office could drive away skilled migrants wanting to settle in Dunedin.

The Dunedin office will be closed from October 2013. It is to be replaced by a Visa Application Centre (VAC), run by a private provider.

Processing of visas for the South Island, including those submitted through the Dunedin VAC, will be centralised at the Christchurch Immigration office.

Women-only immigrant networking group Women Across Cultures drafted a letter to be sent to Minister of Immigration Nathan Guy, after they heard about the closure in October.

Group member Jean Park said having to travel to Christchurch to sort out immigration issues would create a huge amount of stress for immigrants all over the South Island and might discourage skilled migrants from coming to Dunedin.

''If it's so hard for you to come here, why wouldn't you just go to Christchurch, or somewhere else?'' Mrs Park said.

The immigration process was complex and took a long time, often involving several visits to immigration offices, she said.

Having access to local staff would make things much easier and less confusing, she said.

''I think before they close it, they should take a good look at a map and see exactly where in New Zealand the immigration offices are,'' Malaysian immigrant Monica Abdullah said.

It was ridiculous to think there would not be an office in one of the country's largest cities, she said.

Zimbabwean immigrant Pamela Welch said although it was possible to fill out many of the immigration forms online, this could often be confusing to immigrants not used to computers.

''Often the migrants come from cultures where you deal with people,'' she said.

''Being with people rather than machines is very important to them.''

She also said providing personal information online raised concerns about confidentiality breaches.

Other members said English was not their first language and they found it far easier to make themselves understood in person rather than talking on the phone.

German immigrant Ute Keck said she had already had to travel to Christchurch for immigration purposes and this trip had cost her more than $600.

In many cases, new immigrants were financially vulnerable and would find it difficult to pay for travel and accommodation, she said.

Otago Chamber of Commerce chief executive John Christie said he could not say whether the loss of the office would mean migrants might stay away from Dunedin, but the closure was a disappointment for the community, he said.

''Dunedin will be less well served as a result of this. It is a disappointing decision''He said immigration was important to several major Dunedin businesses, especially in the tertiary education sector, and it was important to have local people with local knowledge dealing with migrants to the city.

Whenever offices had closed in the past the city had seen a reduction in services, even though the government had always put forward the argument that services would not be affected, he said.

An Immigration New Zealand spokeswoman said people should not have to travel to Christchurch under the new scheme.

''Frontline services will be undertaken by the VAC, which will be in place prior to the branch closing. Immigration New Zealand is also working on a new ICT system that will, once available, enable visas to be applied for online,'' she said.

The Dunedin branch employed six staff, she said.

''We will work with staff to find them alternative employment where possible within the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. Redundancy will only be considered as a last resort.''

There are immigration offices in Auckland Central, Manukau, Henderson, Hamilton, Palmerston North, Christchurch, Dunedin and Queenstown. Immigration New Zealand said the Manukau, Hamilton, Wellington and Queenstown branches had been identified for review over the next two years. Final decisions on whether these branches would close or be retained were expected to be made progressively over 2014-15.

In the year to June 30, 2012, about 3200 work visa applications were approved for Otago.

- Jonathan Chilton-Towle

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