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One In Six Post-Cyclone Recovery Visa Workers Overstaying In New Zealand

Gill Bonnett, Immigration Reporter

Immigration figures show one in six workers who came into the country on the post-Cyclone Recovery Visa are now overstaying.

Only 72 people who got a six-month recovery visa after the extreme weather events have returned home.

More than 1200 people arrived to work in jobs connected to the recovery effort since last year's Cyclone Gabrielle and Auckland floods, on a fees-free visa.

By last month, half were on a different visa and 177 were unlawfully in the country.

The government had wanted to quickly attract the likes of engineers, insurance assessors and heavy machine operators, but many were less qualified, with labourers and cleaners topping the jobs that were filled.

Immigration New Zealand (INZ) told its minister, Erica Stanford, in a recent briefing there was a high rate of "non-genuine, fraudulent" applications, with 40 percent of them rejected.

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Although it was a similar fraud to the ones involving accredited employer work visas, it was different - employers did not have to be accredited, and the $700-$750 visa fee was waived if an application was successful, paid for by the government. Immigration advisers warned of adverts in some countries that marketed it as a free, open work visa.

YouTube videos abounded, pointing out no English language tests were required and suggesting applicants could get permanent residence after two years. Allegations emerged of agents charging $30,000 for a job and visa package.

Although the visa was closed to new applicants in September, existing recovery workers were able to get a three-month extension, with applications for that closing next month.

Government-funded visas

Government papers from last September, when the decision to close the visa category was taken, showed uptake for the recovery visa exceeded expectations, and "agreed funding for refunds has been exhausted".

The Crown had set aside funding for 1000 successful applicants - but 1600 were eventually approved, including those who got visa renewals and 255 people who did not end up coming to New Zealand at all - and more money had to be found.

"Uptake for the visa has focussed on lower skilled roles and there is evidence of fraud and exploitation across the category," said one report.

"Throughout April [2023], there was growing evidence that the Recovery Visa was being deliberately used by organised operations to target vulnerable potential migrants not normally able to obtain a work visa. People have been paying and turning up for non-existent jobs, and INZ is currently declining over 80 percent of new applications received. These migrants are also unlikely to meet requirements to stay in New Zealand longer-term, including as part of the rebuild workforce."

A briefing to Stanford last month lays out the figures of what has happened to the 1236 people who did arrive on recovery visas, including half (615) who now have a different visa, 336 on an interim visa (waiting for a visa decision) and the 177 overstayers.

"MBIE's immigration compliance team will continue to contact unlawful individuals where possible," INZ chief operating officer Stephen Vaughan said.

"In many cases inaccurate or incomplete information was provided during the Recovery Visa application process, which makes it difficult for immigration compliance to make contact. Further work to identify contact details for New Zealand-based applicants and third parties is underway."

INZ's latest overstayer estimate, from 2017, indicated 14,000 migrants remained in New Zealand without a valid visa, with 60 percent previously on a visitor visa. Citizens of Tonga, Samoa, China and India were the most common nationalities of overstayers.

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