I know I am not the first and I certainly hope I’m not to write about this story. Because you know what? This scares me right out of my sparkly, yet sensible shoes. Last week, New Zealand immigration officials told South African chef Albert Buitenhuis that due to his weight of 286 pounds he has an “unacceptable standard of health” and faces expulsion from the country. Despite the fact that Buitenhuis has actually lost weight since he was originally admitted to the country in 2007, he has lost his work visa because he failed to lose weight.
He needed to stop working immediately. And because Albert was the primary applicant on the original work visa, his wife needed to stop working as well.
An immigration spokesperson has stated that Mr Buitenhuis’s application had been rejected because his obesity put him at “significant risk” of complications including diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. The spokesman reportedly said:
“Unless it is in the extreme, obesity will not in itself cause an applicant to fail health screening requirements, but INZ’s medical assessors have to consider to what extent there might be indications of future high-cost and high-need demand for health services,”
It should be noted that Albert may also need a knee replacement which could cost the health system over $20,000. However, it has also been reported that the fact that Mr. Buitenhuis’ BMI was over 35, originally triggered the rejection of his work visa renewal.
This story has hit international news outlets including the Daily Mail and the BBC. So I am hopeful this won’t just slip into obscurity in the next day or two, and I am eager to hear how Albert’s appeal process proceeds. Because I have to admit, I find this story terrifying and frustrating in the extreme.
Here are just a few points:
1. Immigration officials arbitrarily choose to apply or not apply BMI statistics in regards to work visa renewal. If the irrational or irregular application of body size regulations are enough to leave people traveling on a jet plane in the lurch, think of the effect it can have on people moving their entire lives from one country to another. And as we’ve seen in regards to flying on airplanes, if fat people are unable to ascertain exactly how these regulations will apply to them they are more likely to avoid the situation altogether.
2. It appears that the rules changed after Albert moved to New Zealand. Albert and his wife set down roots, made friends, built a career and a life, and then the rug got pulled out from under them. This should be a chilling tale for everyone interested in ever immigrating anywhere.
3. It appears the New Zealand Immigration ministry are using BMI and health interchangeably. There is ample evidence that as a health metric BMI is extremely problematic and unreliable. There is significant evidence that people who have a BMI in the “ideal range” actually live shorter lives than those in the “overweight” range. Furthermore, I have heard no indication that New Zealand’s Immigration ministry are using other, far more reliable health metrics in determining visa renewal status. Are they taking into account issues like: stress level, sedentary lifestyle, tobacco use, levels of discrimination, lack of sleep, working third shift or driving a motorcycle, being older, or being male? There’s also evidence that bald men are more likely to have heart disease and taller women are more likely to get cancer. Why are they taking this one extremely unreliable metric (BMI) out of context and using it to determine immigration status?
4. Is BMI used because it is a “cheap shot” both figuratively and literally? Despite the many, many questions about the effectiveness of BMI as a health metric, there is no question that it is extremely easy to measure and verify. And I wonder whether discrimination based on body size is cheap politically as well? Immigration necessarily needs to limit the number of people who can enter and stay in a country. And they need to make sure the limitations that are used are politically tenable. Are fat people singled out and discriminated against simply because politically, they are easy targets?
I admit that I can’t claim to know everything that is going on in this case. I will be watching with interest to see how it plays out. But, in any case, I think this is further proof that we need to be ever vigilant of new ways that discrimination is heaped upon people of size.
The Fat Chick
UPDATE: Don’t miss this amazing post by Angela Meadows in Huff Po! And don’t forget to like the story and comment if you have the sanity points to spare!
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