Immigration

Migrants could soon be living on the street

The Government says it is doing enough to avert what Queenstown's Mayor calls an impending "humanitarian crisis"

Jayna* is one of thousands of out-of-work migrants struggling to make ends meet under lockdown. 

Her employer closed down his cafe business for good the day the nation went into quarantine.

Jayna's boss told her he wouldn't be able to keep the business operating, especially with no firm prospect that the hospitality sector would be back to normal afterwards. 

The place she and her husband rent in Auckland gobbles up $525 of her husband's weekly salary of $700. The rest ($175) they split between five people: the two of them, her 6-year-old son, and her husband's parents who are visiting from Australia.

"Now it is very difficult ... electricity bills, grocery, and everything is very difficult for us because there's no way to get money," Jayna said.

"It's not enough for my family."

'Humanitarian crisis'

The situation has been echoed up and down the country. 

Queenstown's Mayor Jim Boult called it an impending "humanitarian crisis". He said his council is keeping track of 9000 people in his area on temporary visas who have called for some form of assistance. 

The Government says it is providing that through Civil Defence Emergency Management. However, it hasn't gone as far as its emergency powers allow. 

"We do not want these people hungry without a place to live."

Union-affiliated migrant worker groups have asked the Government to go further and use s64 of the Social Security Act to provide an emergency benefit for migrants nationwide.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has defended a decision not to go down this path and argued support was being provided through the civil defence system.

"The fastest way that we could get support in terms of accommodation, immediate food needs, and so on was through that support on the ground," she said.

"What Work and Income would otherwise do is being directly delivered through that form.

"This is similar to what the benefit would provide in terms of support."

When the Minister of Social Development, Carmel Sepuloni, was asked if disagreement in Cabinet was the reason behind the decision not to issue an emergency benefit for migrants she didn't answer the question directly. 

She pointed to a Cabinet decision to invest another $30m into the CDEM efforts instead.

"That support is not just available to New Zealanders or permanent residents...it's available to anyone that's here in the country," Sepuloni said.

However Boult said the CDEM funding had its limitations. He understood it was only viable for a relatively short period of time and mainly consisted of food vouchers.

Anu Kaloti says a migrant benefit is needed during this 'unprecedented time of emergency'. Photo: Supplied

He said philanthropic people in his area had put together a fund to supplement CDEM support, but warned it would get used up "relatively quickly" and many migrants would be liable for eviction once lockdown lifted.

"Once the Civil Defence money runs out and once the supplementary wage runs out we're going to have some thousands of people who don't have an income and are in danger of not having a place to live.

"What I'm saying is that is not acceptable. These people have come here to work in what was New Zealand's largest foreign exchange earner, tourism. They played a key role in creating that industry and now there are no jobs for them," Boult said.

"We just can't leave them on the street. That causes all sorts of issues...we do not want these people hungry without a place to live."

Migrant Workers Association president Anu Kaloti said out of work migrants had none of the normal lifelines New Zealanders could draw on. 

If $30m in additional funding could be provided through CDEM there was no reason why a similar amount of money couldn't be used to fund an emergency benefit. 

Kaloti believed CDEM was not the best way to provide support and many migrants did not know such assistance existed outside Queenstown.

"We keep hearing from the Government that migrant worker rights are no different to non-migrant workers' rights," Kaloti said.

"These people have been here for years and years ... they worked as students, they worked full-time as workers, paid all their taxes, and they have never, ever accessed any of the public services that are available to citizens and residents.

"Now in this unprecedented time of emergency, all we request is - for a temporary time period while we're in the face of this pandemic and economic crisis - that migrant workers are given the emergency benefit."

*Newsroom agreed to protect Jayna's real identity 

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