Time to scrap ableist migration rules down under

‘You cost too much. You’re not welcome here.’ That’s the message that many migrants and families receive when we try to settle in Aotearoa/New Zealand or Australia.

If you have a disability, health condition, high BMI (in New Zealand), or other potential health needs, immigration rules in both country will likely judge you not as a contributing human being who should be treated with dignity, but as an economic burden. ‘Acceptable Standard of Health’ rules subject all migrants, and some refugees, to lengthy, expensive, stressful and degrading assessment and appeals processes, just to be able to stay.

Just this week, the New Zealand Herald, Newshub and The Guardian covered the story of Arianna Gail Alfonzo, an autistic twelve-year-old whose application for New Zealand residency has been denied because she’s considered a high cost to education services.

Arianna’s father has lived in New Zealand for six years running a construction business in Auckland, while she and he mother are stuck in the Philippines.

A petition to reunite them in NZ and recognise Arianna’s human rights will be delivered to Parliament this week. That will be followed next week by another petition from a Chilean family who’ve been fighting for years so their daughter who has a learning disability can stay in the country.

The Ardern government has gone so far as to claim that it ‘supports inclusive policies for migrants with disabilities’, all the while couching systematic exclusion in the language of appropriate balancing acts.

Here’s how the supposedly progressive Labour PM summed up the sentiment recently:

When you individualise and talk about individual stories, those stories are hard and very difficult. But you have to understand why we have to give consideration to that because we do have a universal public health system.

Once you are here on long-term visas, you receive that free care, so we need to make sure we can continue to provide that free care—well—to everyone.

This framing is a smokescreen for scapegoating migrants for the failure of successive governments to adequately fund core social systems like education support and healthcare.

Such blatant discrimination is a highly regressive standpoint for a Labour government to uphold in 2022, void of any claim to kindness or compassion. 

The PM’s comments came as the family of four-year-old Ruby Rose O’Connor, who was born in New Zealand, were being forced out of the country. As is commonplace under these discriminatory migration rules, the visa assessment blocked Ruby Rose from getting residency by fixating on the cost of her health conditions, despite the family having established their lives in the country for seven years and contributing in myriad ways. 

The true scale of how many are impacted by similar injustices, and the extent of the stress, financial strain and prolonged uncertainty those affected face, remains mostly invisible. 

However, across both New Zealand and Australia, extensive media coverage shows Ruby Rose’s family are far from alone. Here’s a snapshot:

  • The family of three-year-old child Kayban Jamshaad, who was born in Australia, were threatened with being forced to leave the country due to Kayban’s healthcare costs, and had to legally appeal to stay, even though they were clear that returning to the Maldives would spell a death sentence for Kayban.
  • Eder Rivera, a Mexican comedian living with his family in New Zealand for six years, currently risks deportation because Immigration NZ (wrongly) associates his high BMI with ill health. 
  • A world of communication opened up for hard of hearing teen Kinley Wangyel Wangchuk through learning Auslan at school, but his family had to fight for years not to be sent back to Bhutan where that world would abruptly shrink. 
  • Sagar Narayan, twenty, was saved by ministerial intervention hours before he was due to be deported from New Zealand to Fiji, because of the perceived cost of his care and education, even though his family who care for him are all in Aotearoa and he couldn’t survive if sent back. 

The idea that the ideal migrant/future citizen needs to be healthy, economically productive and represent a net financial gain has ugly eugenic roots. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand all introduced prejudicial migration regulations targeting people whose bodies, minds or morals were deemed to be defective in the eyes of the respective coloniser regime.

The language, categories and processes have changed over the years, but in both New Zealand and Australia, their eugenic, ableist, fatphobic and xenophobic effects are as visible as ever.

In both countries, medical assessments for migrants who might be eligible to be granted a health/medical waiver so they can get their visa are meant to be done on an individual basis. Assessments theoretically account for factors like the ties the applicant has to the country, and whether they will make a significant contribution.

This may sound fair in theory, but in reality it forces sick and disabled migrants, and in some cases refugees, to prove their worth outweighs their (supposed) costs.

In other words, we (or our families, in the case of kids) are forced to present ourselves as very healthy, very hard-working, very tax-paying and very grateful to New Zealand and Australia for the welcome we’ve received into the community. 

Often, disabled, fat or even sick migrants are classified as incurring medical costs which are either non-existent or highly unrealistic. It’s not okay to conflate BMI or disability with poor health or to draw on blanket assumptions about the likely productivity of people with a particular condition or impairment to determine immigration status.

But here’s the core problem. Migrants, whether on disability, health or other grounds, are always categorised as expensive and unworthy. The burden falls on us to convince the country’s government otherwise. This is made especially difficult because, in both countries, the legal means normally available to complain when we get discriminated against aren’t available for immigration cases.

In New Zealand, even refugees are subjected, to varying degrees, to Acceptable Standard of Health requirements. We are talking about people fleeing conflict and persecution, who have already gone through trauma and prolonged displacement, and who are living in situations with inadequate medical resources and healthcare.

In Australia, after the policy changed in 2012, refugees are automatically granted a health waiver, but significant barriers to their resettlement and support remain.

There have been no shortage of recommendations for reform, review and removal of the offending migration regulations and legislation in both countries. In 2011, Australia’s Joint Standing Committee on Migration released a report including eighteen recommendations to address disability discrimination within the immigration rules. Most of them have been so far ignored.

The committee monitoring the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has questioned both countries on their breaches of rights enshrined in the Convention to liberty of movement and nationality, as well as non-discrimination.

In New Zealand, the independent body monitoring the Convention, as well as a parliamentary select committee, have called for reform or review, so that disabled people’s rights and strengths are recognized. This came after disabled migrant Juliana Carvalho gathered 34,747 signatures on a petition calling for an end to the discrimination, and for the policy to uphold the disability convention. 

Even so, the New Zealand government, like the Australian government before it, has chosen  to carry out a limited review of the cost threshold, leaving the ableist and fatphobic status quo firmly intact.

Despite legislative attempts to enshrine this migration prejudice (including the statement that ‘immigration matters inherently involve different treatment on the basis of personal characteristics’), the only barrier to change is political will. Long-standing discriminatory rules in Canada have now been lessened dramatically, and the government has agreed they should be removed completely, after a 2017 parliamentary review found they did not align with modern Canadian values.

Besides, indigenous immigration protocols show that there is nothing inherent about categorising migrants based on economic worth. Māori legal scholar Kylee Quince has explained that a relationship-based immigration system grounded in the Māori customary values of manaaki (host responsibility and care), utu (reciprocity) and aroha (love and compassion) would contribute to honouring Te Tiriti o Waitangi, Aotearoa/New Zealand’s founding document.

Shifting the entrenched mindset of immigration ministers and governments who consider that it’s acceptable to reduce human beings to a dollar value will be a long-term fight. But in both countries, there are campaigns to keep the issue on the political agenda and raise public consciousness.

  • In Australia, Welcoming Disability calls for reform to Australia’s migration health laws and an end to disability discrimination.
  • In New Zealand, the #EndASHNow campaign advocates for an end to disability and health-based migration discrimination, including by ending the country’s ableist Acceptable Standard of Health requirements.

If we’re going to change these rules, the voices of those of us who have been impacted by them alone will not be enough. As important as media coverage is, by itself it can’t and won’t lead to the scale of change that justice requires.

We need MPs to recognise fair migration rules as a non-partisan issue and show their support for change, such as the Greens have done in both countries. And we need you—members of the public, NGOs, migrant advocacy groups, disable people, Australian and New Zealand citizens—to support our campaigns and lift up the voices of those harmed by these unjust requirements.

Regardless of nationality, migration or refugee status, we all seek to contribute to our schools, workplaces, neighbourhoods and communities. We all need support, we all have strengths, and we all deserve to be treated with dignity. It’s time for the immigration rules and laws in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand’s to change to honour these truths.

Áine Kelly-Costello

Áine Kelly-Costello is a proudly disabled story teller, consultant and campaigner. They are a member of Migrants against the Acceptable Standard of Health Aotearoa, a newly-formed collective of migrants, refugees and families campaigning to end disability and health migration discrimination in Aotearoa.

More by Áine Kelly-Costello ›

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