‘Can of beans’ given to stranded migrants

Migrant advocates say emergency benefits are badly needed to solve an "invisible" problem they insist is very much a reality across the country.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says emergency benefits for migrants are not needed to avert what Queenstown's Mayor calls a "humanitarian crisis".

Ardern reiterated her stance at a press conference on Monday. Days after cabinet papers were released revealing officials told the Government Section 64 of the Social Security Act could be used to enable temporary migrants to get benefits while lockdown was in place. 

"We've found a way to provide the same support that would otherwise go to those groups without having to make legal changes to our social development regulations. And that includes actually being able to cover the costs of even accommodation," Ardern said when asked about providing benefits to stranded migrants. She denied New Zealand First was blocking benefits for jobless people without residency.

That explanation doesn't wash with social workers at the coalface or migrants themselves. Over 300,000 guest workers and international students are stranded in New Zealand without residency, with tens of thousands potentially out of work and without any income or prospect of a benefit to help them pay for food and accommodation. They are not counted in job seeker or benefit numbers because they are not eligible.

It especially doesn't ring true with Kate* whose Civil Defence Emergency Management (CDEM) assistance consisted of two cans of baked beans, two spaghetti tins, along with onions, potatoes and canned chickpeas. Rice, flour, and sugar were provided in small ziplock bags. 

Her family of seven - three children and four adults - worked their way through the rations in one day while locked down in a cold and mouldy two-bedroom $350 per week converted Auckland garage.

When she called up a couple of days later for a food parcel top-up, she was told the pack was meant to last her the entire length of lockdown. 

"It's really hard."

Migrant advocates and social workers have been increasingly frustrated by government delays in extending social welfare benefits to out-of-work migrants.

Mangere East Family Services CEO Peter Sykes said much of the problem was "invisible" because social workers themselves weren't allowed to visit people at their homes to check up on how they were being treated. 

"These people are invisible in the best of times ... they're put up in containers or put up in old shearing quarters or cabins or whatever's available," Sykes said.

"Under normal circumstances I could put that family in my car and I could drive them ... and put them on people's doorsteps, but during lockdown we can't do that so everything can be fobbed off."

Kate's situation has only worsened as the delays have continued. She is now in debt to her landlord for nearly $2500 in unpaid rent. Her internet and phone provider have threatened to cut her off.

She stumbled onto CDEM by accident after answering a plea from her son's primary school for families to reach out if they were in financial trouble.

Union Network of Migrants spokesman Mandeep Bela said if emergency benefits were not needed during a global pandemic lockdown then it was hard to think when they would ever be needed.

"All this time we have been just simply hearing it's in active consideration.

"What we don't understand is why consideration is taking so long when there are other measures being announced on a daily basis. We are looking at hundreds of thousands of migrants who are at the moment quite vulnerable."

'Just get a job'

Mangere East Family Services social worker Heidi San Juan said when she initially approached CDEM on Kate's behalf they suggested the family could be given a food parcel, but the better option was for him to find a job. 

"It's very frustrating actually."

Accommodation assistance was not financial. It was only available if people had been kicked out of their homes.

Kate said since then she had been flitting between food banks from various charities to keep her family fed. 

Sykes said CDEM was a centralised bureaucracy that didn't have strong community networks across Auckland.

Lockdown had cut off migrant access to recognised social service support centres like the community law centre or Citizens Advice Bureau. Which made it difficult for migrants to even find out CDEM food parcels were available. 

"When it came to setting up food banks they set it up in central Auckland and then basically dump food and resources into the community.

"The migrant workers. They were told they should just go and get a job now that they're in Level 3.

"What do they do? They're not allowed to leave New Zealand. They can't afford to leave New Zealand."

A spokeswoman for Minister of Social Development Carmel Sepuloni said Cabinet had not yet considered a decision to extend welfare assistance to non-resident nationals. 

"The proactive release documents point out the available mechanisms under an epidemic notice so that ministers were able to understand what was possible.

"Section 64 would still be required to undergo the normal cabinet process. CDEM measures have been put in place to support those in urgent need."

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