Turning away much-needed talent

American architect Camia Young moved to Christchurch in February 2012 and obtained several temporary work visas to teach a course part-time at the University of Auckland.

She bought a house in Christchurch and commuted north several days a week. In her free time, Young took a leading role designing the Pallet Pavilion, and was a founding trustee of the Festival of Transitional Architecture. However, immigration authorities told her last year that she could not get another temporary work visa. If she wanted to stay, she would either have to marry a local, or find full-time employment under the skills shortage category. Architecture is not in the skills shortage list, but she could find a full-time position as a draftsman. However, this would not be an ideal solution, she says.

"I can only have one employer so I have to give up my university employment. And working full time means giving up voluntary work."

Young is a key player in Exchange Christchurch, an effort to create a flexible space for installations, artworks, theatre and the like. She's also behind Studio Christchurch, a collaborative platform for research and design.

"I love Christchurch. It's absolutely my home. I've been spending most of my life looking for somewhere that I felt this at home and this engaged."

Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel says visa restrictions could be relaxed in a Christchurch context. She says the council has not raised the issue with the ministry of immigration yet, but that it "will be putting on a case".

"We need to encourage creative people to come to Christchurch."

City councillor Raf Manji says people like Young are "the type of talent that we want for Christchurch".

He says immigration should give qualified, creative migrants who want to stay or come to Christchurch more flexibility if the city wants to have a chance in the "global competition to attract talent".

He believes an "open visa" for Christchurch could give 100 well-selected people a year the right to stay even if they don't fit the existing visa categories. He says he suggested the idea to the ministry of immigration last year.

"We're trying to create an environment for innovation or creativity to prosper. And you can not do that by telling people they can only have a visa if they do this or that job, it's completely daft."

Deputy mayor Vicki Buck agrees. "Quite often people don't fit the categories, and they're the kind of people you want to keep."

She says Christchurch should be a place "where anything feels possible".

Petrina Chai, from Malaysia, has been struggling with the visa system for 10 years. She arrived in 2004 with a student visa that took her through a BA in communication studies from the University of Otago, and an event management diploma from CPIT. After that, she would have liked to work in event management, but most work in that field is on short contracts or freelance, which would not get her a long-term visa. She had to take a full-time position in a Christchurch bar to obtain a work visa, and volunteers "as much as possible" in her free time.

She has been involved with TEDx Christchurch, the Arts Festival, and other community initiatives.

She says she fell in love with Christchurch just before the earthquakes "When you've gone through something traumatic, it kind of ties you to the place. I want to see the city get back on its feet. It was such a wonderful place, it still is. And I've got so much excitement for it."

However, after almost 10 years in New Zealand, her residency application was denied last year.

"I want to stay and I want to contribute, but . . . I can't keep applying for new work visas - it's not financially viable."

Canterbury Development Corporation chief executive Tom Hooper says migrants will be key to Christchurch's future.

"The equation is quite simple. Christchurch needs more people, not just for the rebuild but for some of its key industries as well and immigration is going to be crucial."

He says an open visa strategy is worth considering but should not be the only option. A "portfolio approach" to visas could open more possibilities to "make it easier for talented and skilled migrants to come to the city in a way that doesn't negatively impact on the existing population".

Minister of Immigration Michael Woodhouse says that generally, the visa system is working well to attract and retain migrants who can add socially, culturally, and economically to New Zealand. "The system has flexibility built into it, and can allow exceptions to policy in certain circumstances."


Working holiday visa

Work visa

Skilled migrant visa

Student visa

Visitor visa

Invest/business visa

Resident visa