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Punishing the victims instead of the perpetrators (Stuff Nation)

Deportation is what many migrants fear. It can mean losing money, losing family or – in the worst cases – losing your life.

OPINION: New Zealand isn't Brexit Britain. I'm fairly certain of that. Nor is it Donald Trump's United States. I have that one on the best authority. No one is promising "immigration controls" or a border wall – not even Winston Peters – and we're not deporting migrants for imagined offences. This is an invitation to feel smug.

Now stop.

"Better than Donald Trump" is a pathetic threshold. In truth, the way we treat migrants is scarcely better than the countries we like to compare ourselves to. In New Zealand human trafficking is happening, some bosses are exploiting migrant workers and education institutes are ripping off international students.

Supporters gathered inside an urban Auckland church to call on the Government to allow a group of Indian students facing deportation to be allowed to stay in the country.

New Zealand is a tolerant country, we can all agree on that, but what happens when we tolerate wrongdoing? In 2015 the group I lead, the Union Network of Migrants, and the union I work for, FIRST Union, conducted a public rescue operation at an East Auckland sushi bar after government lethargy saw two sushi chefs become increasingly desperate for help.   

The sushi chefs, both Filipino migrants, were working for as little as $3.57 an hour with only one day off every fortnight. In a bizarre twist the men's boss confiscated their passports. There was no escape. Complaining to the authorities meant risking the sack and without a job you no longer meet the requirements of your work visa.

Deportation could follow.


Deportation is what many migrants fear. It can mean losing money, losing family or – in the worst cases – losing your life as the New Zealand government repatriates you to the very place you escaped from.

For the Indian students seeking sanctuary at Ponsonby's Unitarian Church, deportation means losing the qualifications they've paid and worked for.

There are so many things wrong with this situation it's hard knowing where to start. First, why is the government punishing the apparent victims of wrongdoing rather than the perpetrators? The students are accused of knowingly signing fraudulent immigration forms, but they insist their education agents did so without their knowledge.  

Whatever the truth, it's time to add education trafficking to the list of problems with New Zealand's immigration system. Education trafficking is where overseas-based education agents recruit international students through fraud or deception. This can include falsifying documents so the agent can collect a fee from prospective students or a commission from private training institutes or tertiary institutions.

It's dodgy – and the Indian students seeking sanctuary aren't the first cases - yet the Government continues to resist the idea of licensing education agents offshore. The Union Network of Migrants launched its campaign for a licensing system in 2013, but our arguments continue to fall on deaf ears. See no problem, hear no problem, speak no problem is the Immigration Minister's personal motto.  

Yet education trafficking is not just a problem for duped students, it's a problem that impacts the lives of everyday New Zealanders too.

In a 2016 research out of Auckland University it was found 22,000 international students are now part of the "flexible labour market." This is where students work often grindingly long hours to support themselves. The effect is what bureaucrats call a "labour market distortion."

In other words, instead of studying students spend most of their time working to earn enough to survive after arriving to find their education agent sold them false promises about New Zealand (how many agents mention our world-topping rent costs?).

But the Government appears to tolerate this because the country can double dip: universities collect lucrative international student fees and employers can access a sometimes desperate and nearly always cheap labour force.

It's seems obvious, but it's worth restating: the Indian students at Ponsonby's Unitarian Church weren't the first case and won't be the last case of duped students. The first step we need to take is to license overseas education and immigration agents. The second step is offer amnesty for victims of education trafficking. Maybe then we can go back to feeling good about our immigration system.

Dennis Maga is the co-ordinator of the Union Network of Migrants, a group representing migrant workers, and the national organiser for Community FIRST, the community campaigning arm of FIRST Union.