COOK ISLANDS IMMIGRATION: THE DEPARTMENT WITHIN A DEPARTMENT

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By Trevor Pitt

AVARUA, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (April 3, 2000 – Cook Islands Star)---Buried amid a web of international relations and conventions, sits a department that regulates and oversees the movement of people in and out of the country -- foreigners and Cook Islanders. Unfortunately, it is one of those departments that is often far from the spotlight until some negative aspect thrusts it into the public arena.

The Immigration Department as it was once known, is now part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), a 1996 casualty of economic reform measures to merge, downsize, and right-size Government ministries. Gone and forgotten for instance is the fact that 25 officers (including those in the Outer Islands and overseas) once made up the department, not to mention the head of the department who, technically at least, is responsible to another head of ministry (HOM).

Chopped by more than 75% down to six and reduced to a department within a department, Immigration has paid many prices. But human costs aside, the wedding that produced MFAI has been a partially successful one. So accommodating in fact, that it would not be an easy task to re-configure the boundaries all over again -- although there have been a few suggestions. Nevertheless, some issues have remained constant as far as Immigration is concerned.

Much of the border control duties, at least at the airport, were transferred to Customs Officers while Immigration now maintains only a single officer to oversee the traffic. At other points of entry, people like harbor master Don Silk fulfill certain functions, as do assigned officers in the Outer Islands. In some cases, one of the Rarotonga-based officials will fly out to an entry point at say, Atiu, in order to process passengers on a foreign vessel.

The paucity of technical capability in terms of computerization has been ongoing, although the marriage with MFA has helped somewhat. After all, the Ministry that handles the heavy traffic of official government communication has, by necessity, been fully equipped with computers and modern technology. Immigration on the other hand, vitally important for the security management of our borders, has not had such luxury over the years. Not only has the department lost skilled and experienced officers but also simple tools like computers have been lacking.

In larger countries, the computerized monitoring and tracking of people flowing in and out of the country is a given. In the Cook Islands, the need for modern measures will grow more and more important in coming years as visitor numbers increase, not to mention illegal migration and drug trafficking. As time moves on and the patterns of people movement evolve and change, that need will be difficult to ignore.

Today, the man who tops the Immigration operations, Tutai Toru, fights against downplayed significance, slogging away at recurring issues -- some new, some not so new.

The fairly recent concerns were born out of the years of the reforms: from 1995 to the present. Take for instance, the current fee structure -- the product of a review conducted in 1996 by a government that was strapped for cash. Two basic arguments surfaced back then. Firstly, there were the implications of raising fees across the board, from Permanent Residents to medium-stay visitors. Would higher costs present barriers to the free flow of tourists into the country? Would government be perceived to be just concerned about raking in more money?

On the other hand, politicians argued that the country was selling itself too cheaply and that higher fees were justified, especially in terms of permanent residence. New Zealand and other Pacific Island countries were cited in comparison.

Other recent concerns sprung up with the advent of another agency that was granted powers to approve work permits. The Development Investment Board (DIB), now a couple of years down the track in attracting foreign investors, can approve and instruct Immigration by law to issue a permit for a non-Cook Islander conducting business in the country. The disagreements, however, have been many.

Backed by its own legislation, regulations, and policies, Immigration has stood firm on occasions where it has arrived at its own conclusions about investors. The definition and treatment of an ‘investor’ is one gray area of concern which has clouded the responsibilities of who has sway.

Toru for instance, is big on definitions. The classifications, he says, are straightforward. When non-Cook Islanders enter the country as a tourist, they are approved a visitor’s permit for 31 days. Classified as such, they are not allowed to work or practice their profession.

The Immigration chief says this basic rule needs renewed publicity and awareness among the public and visitors. Generally, there are no difficulties when certain professionals arrive in the country for a specific purpose. What is most helpful, Toru says, is that Immigration be advised in advance to clarify matters.

If, for whatever reason, someone decides to change or step outside the visitor category, their legal status must be amended according to the regulations. This usually means that visitors must leave the country and re-apply for entry under another category. In addition, it is not uncommon for temporary residents to decide to switch jobs, or for spouses or partners of contracted workers to want to work as well.

There has been some flexibility in the past, and discretion has been applied in some cases. And although that may seem a sound approach, the exceptions to the rule can cause problems because of the appearance of discriminatory practice.

The intervention of DIB hasn’t helped either since several applicants have, in the past, used the agency as a loophole to bypass more conservative Immigration scrutiny.

The choices therefore range from a hard and fast rule to send applicants out of the country to apply externally, or scrap the policy altogether.

Those in favor of the latter argue that it is only Air New Zealand that benefits from sending people out and bringing them back in again. Airlines in fact, were once an object of criticism, particularly when it came to the tickets of overstayers. Immigration for example, has always wanted airlines like Air NZ to re-ticket those who have allowed their passage out of the country to lapse. The re-ticketing is no problem -- it’s who pays that’s always been the concern.

Following a bad patch of overstayers a couple of years ago, Toru now says matters have been relatively quiet and that Immigration enjoys a good working relationship with the airline.

The cost factor however, does remain an important one in the consideration of security management. Take a quick look at the department’s budget for instance, and try and figure out how Immigration is supposed to cater for overstayers and deportation. Evicting someone from the country will incur costs somewhere, whether it’s paying for tickets out, or for a security escort to the next port.

Currently, such contingency measures do not figure in the department’s budget. Instead, the allocated funds cater only for the salaries of the six staff, and their basic operations. There is no current likelihood of obtaining the necessary funds, and there are no concrete plans to secure resources for a much-needed technical upgrade.

Unfortunately, the perception of low priority granted to an important department gives Toru little hope that Immigration will be any better off than it was before the reforms started in 1995.

Cook Islands Star

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