39 Indians go missing in New Zealand in suspected immigration scam

By Neena Bhandari, IANS,

Sydney/Auckland : In what appears to be a major immigration scandal, another seven Indians in transit in New Zealand en route to Australia for the week-long World Youth Day festivities have gone missing, taking their total to 39.

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The seven pilgrims, aged between 17 and 35, have left their host families and gone missing in Auckland and the Bay of Plenty region.

“Immigration New Zealand is investigating allegations that the disappearance of the pilgrims is part of an immigration scam. It cannot comment further on this at this stage,” said a statement released Tuesday by New Zealand’s Department of Labour, which is in charge of immigration.

New Zealand Sikh Society spokesperson Daljit Singh told Radio New Zealand he understood that at least 12 of the missing people had paid Rs.500,000 (NZ$15,000) to agents in India who they claim had promised them residency in New Zealand, but were shocked when they were handed short-term visas on arrival.

Daljit Singh said he had managed to make contact with two of the missing pilgrims and a further three had been in contact with other members of the Indian community in New Zealand.

The initial plan was for them to pay a deposit which would get them multiple visas for a month. They were to travel to Auckland and then to Sydney before returning to India with 15 days left on their visas. The agent would then require another Rs.500,000 before they travelled back to New Zealand and this time to stay as long as they wanted.

“They thought ‘why can’t we stay the first time rather than coming back and paying another fare?’ I tried to convince them yesterday they need to leave today to Sydney but they are telling us they came to stay here and the guy organising from India took their money and said ‘you can stay (in New Zealand) forever’,” Singh told the local media.

It seems the three pilgrims had caught a taxi from Auckland to Tauranga, which had an Indian driver and the latter informed Singh of their plans as they had discussed it while in the taxi.

Singh told the radio that he understood more members of the group were planning to try and stay on in Sydney after the weeklong World Youth Day events end.

Kim Wannenburg, who hosted two Indian nationals for four days in Auckland before they disappeared, said she felt duped. She told the local media that the pilgrims had pretended to go to the local shop to buy her daughter a gift, and didn’t return, but have since called to apologise for not saying goodbye.

As questions are being raised whether they were at all bona fide pilgrims, the missing people have reportedly expressed their intention to live in New Zealand.

A dismayed Catholic Church spokesperson Lyndsay Freer told Radio New Zealand: “As far as I know nobody in the church would have any inkling that anything like this was happening. It appears World Youth Day has been used as an excuse and that is really quite alarming”.

As many as 220 Indian pilgrims, who were given one-month New Zealand visitor visas earlier in July, have left Auckland for Sydney on various flights Tuesday evening.

Some of those who are missing absconded from Auckland International Airport on arrival in New Zealand in early July, while others absconded from their billets, all but one leaving their luggage there, according to the Department of Labour.

The pilgrims were billeted with church members in Auckland, not specifically Indian Catholic families, under so-called Days in the Diocese programme.

“When they are located Immigration New Zealand will encourage the missing pilgrims to continue their travel, but their visitor permits allow them to remain legally in New Zealand until 5 or 6 August (i.e., one month after arrival – they arrived on different days in early July),” a spokesperson of the department said.

The pilgrims were issued with group visas for one month by Immigration New Zealand’s New Delhi branch, in consultation with Australian authorities offshore and the Catholic Church in India, which had nominated the pilgrims for travel to World Youth Day and had carried out a robust verification process.

The passports of all the Indian pilgrims have been held by church leaders while they have been in New Zealand and were returned to those leaving at Auckland Airport Tuesday.

Immigration New Zealand is maintaining close contact with the Catholic Church in Auckland and Australian authorities in efforts to locate the missing pilgrims.