Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon is asking the Government to stop deporting people until we’re well clear of Covid-19

Contact tracing and testing are key planks of our Covid-19 response, but overstayers may never co-operate with either if the Government doesn’t stop issuing deportation orders.

Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon sent a letter to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Ethnic Communities Minister Jenny Salesa making it clear “extraordinary circumstances” demanded “extraordinary policies” when it came to those here illegally.

“There’d be thousands [of overstayers] in the country. Literally thousands,” Foon said.

“My plea is look, have an amnesty on deportation until the Covid is over. Because it’s more a health issue than a deportation or visa expiry issue.

“The message needs to be made clear that they are not going to be deported. And there should be an amnesty for them to actually come forward.”

He added his voice to others like former Immigration Minister and TOP Auckland Central candidate Tuariki Delamere who wants all deportations to be halted until the world is clear of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Many overstayers have lived here for decades – some from as far back as the 1990s. They aren’t just limited to the Pacific Island community, but include migrants from many other parts of the world. 

A few skipped into the country during simpler times when the border wasn’t so secure.

Immigration lawyer Alastair McClymont said he knew of some Fijian overstayers who got into the country by jumping off boats as they docked at the Port of Tauranga.

Many entered the country, applied for asylum and never left after their applications were declined.

Others were served with deportation notices, but didn’t turn up for their exit flights. They now move from place to place to avoid a deportation order landing on their doorstep.

A question of trust

Health Minister Chris Hipkins has assured people health authorities will not pass on the personal information of those who are here illegally to immigration authorities when it comes to Covid-19 issues.

Community representatives have said these assurances are not enough for a group of people extremely cautious about revealing their identities.

“If there are overstayers in that church there is no way that they will come forward and disclose that they are illegally here.”

Pacific Leadership Forum representative Makahokovalu Pailate said overstayers who attended Mt Roskill Evangelical church (termed a “mini-cluster” by Director of Public Health Ashley Bloomfield) would have had no incentive to come forward to Ministry of Health (MOH) contract tracers.

“There are stories among the Pacific Island community that some of these people [at the church] have been served deportation order.

“Once this has been done who is going to come forward?

“If there are overstayers in that church there is no way that they will come forward and disclose that they are illegally here.”

Health Minister Chris Hipkins has assured overstayers of confidentiality, but these assurances aren’t enough critics say. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

A spokesperson for MOH didn’t address the question of whether there was any reason to suspect overstayers attending the church had not come forward yet for testing.

“The Ministry continues to encourage anyone who needs to be tested for Covid-19 to get tested…Any information you supply will only be used to help with our public health response.

“In regards to the Mt Roskill Evangelical Church, the Ministry is working very closely with the church leadership and its community, and with local health organisations including the Northern Region DHBs.

“We would like to thank them all for their support and cooperation.”

The risk is of undetected transmission amongst migrant workers is far from academic. 

“Here are all the flights the Indian government’s arranged: 557 flights over the next two months and not one of them is coming to New Zealand bro. You can’t deport the buggers.”

Singapore’s second Covid-19 outbreak was centred in the oft-ignored dormitories favoured by the country’s migrant workforce and went unnoticed until it was almost too late.

The nation went from single-digit case numbers to thousands infected according to TIME Magazine.

“Singapore’s outbreak highlights what can happen if some of the lowest paid and most vulnerable people in society go unnoticed during the health crisis,” TIME reported in June.

‘You can’t deport the buggers’

Even if Immigration NZ (INZ) were able to find these overstayers critics argue a lack of international flights means they wouldn’t be able to deport them anyway.

Delamere successfully argued this point in court last week after a client of his on an expired visa was pulled up in the Hawkes Bay.

“I sent the judge a list. Here are all the flights the Indian government’s arranged: 557 flights over the next two months and not one of them is coming to New Zealand bro. You can’t deport the buggers.”

The Government sought to put his overstaying client in prison until a flight arrived to deport him, but overstaying is an offence you can’t be detained long periods for. 

“To be honest some of the people we are talking to now have overstayed 20 years.”

Delamere said in both cases he simply argued with no flights arriving the Government couldn’t provide a definitive end date for his client’s detention.

Securing deportation flights is likely to be an even bigger problem when it comes to overstayers from the Pacific Islands. The Government has struggled to organise enough flights to get our legal Recognised Seasonal Employer workforce home.

“People say ‘oh they should go home’. Yeah, well they can’t,” Delamere said.

How many?

INZ statistics put the total number of overstayers at 13,895 in 2017 (the most recent statistics available). Of those 4047 are from Samoa and Tonga (29 percent).

The next largest group of overstayers are from China (11 percent) followed closely by India (9 percent).

Pailate said an attempt to create a legal pathway for overstayers in the 2000s did regularise the immigration status of some, but others whose applications were declined just stayed in the country. 

“To be honest some of the people we are talking to now have overstayed 20 years.”

However the actual number is likely larger than official statistics show according to Immigration lawyers and others closely connected to these communities because some have been here since the 1990s. 

INZ estimated there were just under 14,000 overstayers here in 2017. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Lawyer Alastair McClymont said many of these long-term overstayers remain hidden or have already been deported, but one or two occasionally pop up from time to time.

He represented one person recently who entered the country on a false passport after having lived here illegally for many years.

The Indian man married a New Zealander and had a child here. He came forward to McClymont and INZ in an attempt to regularise his immigration status. He was later deported.

“When I started working, around 1996, there were large numbers of Indians – particularly Punjabis – who had come through [on] false visas and passports because of all of the persecution that was going on in Punjab at the time. 

“A lot of them came here. Made their refugee claims and were then declined. They just basically disappeared underground and have remained underground for a long time.

“And a lot of them came under false identities – false passports – so nobody really knows who they are.”

Petition for a pathway to residency

Pailate and others in the Pacific Leadership forum became a magnet for some of the stories of these overstayers after they launched a petition to create a pathway to residency for those who had overstayed their visas. 

It gained over 11,000 signatures and attracted anonymous testimonials from people who had found themselves in this position. 

“We’re seeing a lot of abuse…they are at the mercy of the people that give the job.”

A lot of these stories involve worker exploitation. Many were centred in rural regions like the Hawkes Bay or the Bay of Plenty.

Some even involved sexual abuse at the hands of people in positions of power. 

“It’s devastating these stories that we are getting,” Pailate said.

“We’re seeing a lot of abuse…they are at the mercy of the people that give the job.”

These overstayers haven’t been sitting around doing nothing. A lot have been sending almost every penny they make to immigration advisers and agents in the vain hope something could be done to prevent their deportation.

Pailate’s argument is, having gone through all of this many are unlikely to download the Covid Tracer App or come forward for testing on the word of government officials without a form of legal amnesty.

The Pacific Leadership Forum plans to attach many of these overstayer stories – with names redacted – to a submission they will make to Parliament’s education and workforce committee at the end of next week. 

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi has not responded to a request for comment.

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