Religious workers can get residence in New Zealand

Religious workers in New Zealand now stand a chance to gain permanent residence visa, thanks to changes announced by the country’s immigration minister Jonathan Coleman.

The change to the immigration policy not only provides a provision for residency for religious workers, but also offers an updated temporary work visa for shorter stays.

“Previously there was no residence option available to religious workers, so some communities were having trouble filling positions long-term, ‘’ Dr Coleman says.

More than 1100 migrant religious workers were in New Zealand in 2009-10, according to figures released by Immigration New Zealand and the revised policy recognises the important role religious leaders play in the spiritual lives of New Zealanders.

“We consulted widely on the policy and made some changes that now meet the needs of many communities. If they meet criteria, religious workers can apply for residence from later this year.’’

The policy, which comes into effect from 1 November 2011, needs religious workers to meet some residence criteria including:

  • they should be sponsored by a religious organisation to work here;
  • the organisation must demonstrate a long-term need for the person; and
  • religious workers must have previously spent three years in New Zealand on a temporary visa.
New Zealand Immigration Minister Dr Jonathan Coleman
New Zealand Immigration Minister Dr Jonathan Coleman

Also, the updated provisions for temporary visa for religious workers allows a person to stay for up to four years, at the end of which they can apply for residence.

The announcement is welcomed by The New Zealand Religious Communities Leadership Forum which represents five communities: The Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand, New Zealand Indian Central Association, New Zealand Buddhist Council and the New Zealand Jewish Council.

“The Catholic Church also supported our position,” says the forum’s convenor, Ms Joan Buchanan, “so in the end we had all 6 world religions in New Zealand supporting this new policy direction.”

The forum had joined forces to seek changes for minority religious communities in New Zealand. “We have been working with Immigration New Zealand on this issue for many years,” says Buchanan.

Last year New Zealand’s Immigration Service conducted a public consultation throughout the country on the issues facing foreign religious workers. The Service received 71 submissions including from representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, and Hare Krishna faiths.

Existing policies do not define ‘religious work’, which allows some people to apply for temporary work visas on grounds which are not closely related to carrying out religious duties or offering pastoral care, says the Immigration New Zealand website. Genuine religious workers also face barriers to residence because, for example, they are not in a conventional employment relationship and often do not earn a salary.

“As New Zealand grows and changes we need to make sure our policies are in the best interest of all New Zealanders. Spiritual and pastoral care are very important to all communities,” says Buchanan.

However Buchanan is keen to discuss the age limit issue with the minister. “We hope that in the detail, yet to be released, the issue of age limit will acknowledge the significant contribution senior Ministers of Religion can contribute to our New Zealand society up to a very old age.”

Buchanan points out that many religious leaders are similar to Kaumatua and/or Tohunga whose wisdom is valued more and more with age. “New Zealand, in fact, does not have a compulsory retirement age recognising that many people make significant contributions well past the age of 65.”

What are the requirements of the new policies?

The new requirements for religious workers seeking temporary visas will include that they must be sponsored by a religious organisation that is a registered charity, be intending to fulfil a religious work purpose, show evidence of relevant training and / or experience and stay no more than four years in total.

Those seeking residence must meet the first three of those requirements and:

  • have spent at last three years on a religious worker temporary visa
  • be at IELTS Level 5 in terms of their English language skills (partial command, coping with overall meaning in most situations)
  • be under 55 years old (the same as for comparable immigration policies).

More details about the policy are available on the Immigration New Zealand website.


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