Immigration lawyer slams visa policy after alleged migrant abuse sparks major investigation

An immigration lawyer has slammed the Government's accredited employer work visa scheme (AEWV) following a Newshub investigation into dozens of migrants living inside a squalid three-bedroom Auckland home. 

The group of 40 men, living in south Auckland allegedly paid thousands of dollars for employment agreements with local recruiters but have received no work and no pay.

Immigration lawyer Alastair McClymont is "not surprised at all" by Newshub's investigation and claims he's seen an "explosion of exploitation and fraud at the moment".

"People like myself and the industry put [this] solely down to this new accredited employer work visa policy and the flaws in the policy."

While McClymont had no numbers to back up his claim of an "explosion" in exploitation and fraud, he said people in the immigration industry could "immediately see the flaws in the policy" when it was introduced.

"What it's doing is creating opportunities for bad people to exploit the policy and take advantage of it. Once you create opportunities, then it's basically a free for all," he told AM. 

He said on the day the AEWV scheme was introduced, people within the workforce were saying; "This is going to be a disaster because there are so many opportunities for exploiters to take advantage of loopholes and flaws".

Immigration Minister Andrew Little said the scheme started when Aotearoa's borders opened in 2022.

He said a spike in complaints was seen in 2021, but put that down to more accessible channels being made available to make complaints "including a new dedicated 0800 number and new web form to lodge complaints".

"The AEWV started when borders reopened in 2022, so the spike in complaints is not attributable to the AEWV," Minister Little said. 

"The complaints to the Labour Inspectorate are not solely attributable to the AEWV scheme, but the increase in complaints shows that workers are aware of the harm that exploitation causes, and the avenues the Government have put in place to protect migrant workers."

Minister Little said since the scheme started, Immigration New Zealand (INZ) has approved more than 27,000 employer accreditations, more than 42,0000 job checks and more than 76,000 AEWVs covering many occupations. 

"It is interesting to note that now nearly half of all complaints about migrant exploitation come through the new reporting web tool, which tells us it is doing what was expected which is making the complaints process more accessible and suggests that previous incidents of migrant exploitation were almost certainly underreported," the Minister said. 

McClymont said the main problem he has with the AEWV scheme is employers can self-declare they are a good employer and claimed INZ is not "doing the checks".

"It's like saying to a ram raider, 'Oh we're going to stop ram raids by asking potential ram raiders to self-declare that they're not going to undertake criminal activity'," he said.

"As soon as the policy was introduced, people here in New Zealand and overseas saw opportunities."

He claims people are taking advantage by charging large amounts for work visas because "they see Immigration New Zealand is not doing the verification checks on the employer".

McClymont said the entire policy needs to be "completely changed" and "written all over again right from scratch".

"It's a total unmitigated disaster."

INZ general manager of immigration compliance and investigations Steve Watson confirmed it's aware of the case of "possible immigration fraud and migrant exploitation in Auckland involving a number of Indian nationals".

"Our investigators are speaking with these people to get the full picture of their situation."

He said the priority right now is to provide welfare support for the migrants. 

"As the investigation is in its early stages we are unable to provide further details but we can assure the public we are taking this situation seriously."

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