Immigrants like ‘slaves’ under broken system

Immigration New Zealand is struggling under the weight of a massive influx of visa fraud and migrant abuse complaints. Shane Cowlishaw reports.

Down in Wellington, there’s a young Indian man managing a dairy.

He also drives his employer and his wife around town, cooks dinner, cleans, and does other household chores.

Racking up 120 hours, over seven days a week, he is paid about $5 an hour for his efforts.

“They’re basically a slave”, immigration lawyer Alistair McClymont explains while recounting the tale, which he says is far from uncommon.

While the tourism boom is easily noticed, there has also been a huge increase in recent years in the number of people arriving in New Zealand to study and work.

A byproduct of that has been a rapid jump in visa fraud, migrant exploitation, and even human trafficking.

In a recent interview with Newsroom, new Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said the visa system “lacked integrity” and was being abused.

He had been shocked to read in a briefing that Immigration New Zealand (INZ) was investigating only a sliver of the fraud and exploitation complaints it received.

In 2015/16 INZ investigated only a third of cases that met its criteria, with that number plunging to just 18 percent in the last financial year.

“Some employers who have been accused say students have been lining up to work for 70, 80 hours for free because they’re desperate for residence visas.”

Lees-Galloway blamed the issue on a lack of funding, but said finding extra money would be difficult.

Immigration lawyers spoken to were far from shocked when told about the low investigation rate.

Auckland-based McClymont said there was a myriad of fraud schemes, with employers who were experts at finding loopholes.

“I’m not in the slightest bit surprised, I’m surprised it’s that high to be honest.”

When he directed people to INZ to report fraud and abuse, nine out of 10 times they took a statement and never got back in touch, he said.

Students were most at risk, having spent tens of thousands of dollars to get to New Zealand.

Having invested so much they were desperate to stay and employers took advantage.

“Some employers who have been accused say students have been lining up to work for 70, 80 hours for free because they’re desperate for residence visas,” McClymont said.

Richard Fletcher, a Wellington-based immigration lawyer, agreed there was a strain on the system.

He wondered whether INZ had the skills and expertise needed considering resource constraints and was curious about what their enforcement priorities were.

“I’m looking forward to reading the briefings to incoming ministers and seeing what they’ve got to say about themselves.”

Whether more of these cases can be dealt with will largely depend on whether INZ and its minister can find any extra money.

Despite a 25 percent budget increase since 2015 most of the money had been soaked up by other areas and offset by the population increase.

INZ assistant general manager Peter Devoy said the rise in the number of people partly explained the jump in fraud and exploitation cases, but not completely.

“To some extent unsurprisingly the number of complaints have gone up, the extent to which they’ve gone up is the surprising aspect and it is something that is of concern that we’ve signalled to the Minister.”

With the resources they had INZ was focusing on the pointy end of exploitation, with more minor complaints referred to other agencies or simply not being dealt with.

Serious exploitation such as human trafficking was a priority, with the third prosecution currently before the courts.

These were situations where people had been lured by the promise of a job but were being forced to work long hours for little pay.

“The work we’re doing is good work, we’d like to be doing more of it.

“There’s always more, it’s always that situation, there’s always another rock to turn over and go and have a look.”

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