Indian students: Churches call for mercy

Religious leaders are urging the Government not to deport a group of Indian students who were the victims of an immigration scam.

Nine people remain in "sanctuary" at the Auckland Unitarian Church in Ponsonby, and fear immigration officers will come calling any day now.

They were duped by dodgy travel agents, who supplied them with fraudulent visas. Each was "taken to the cleaners financially and educationally", as NZ First leader Winston Peters put it, but have had no mercy from Immigration NZ, which has said they'll be deported if they don't leave the country voluntarily.

On Monday leaders from the Catholic, Anglican and Methodist churches joined forces in urging the Government to let them stay.

"Having looked at their situation it seems to us that these students have been duped by unscrupulous immigration agents in India," says Archbishop Philip Richardson of the Anglican Church.

"We urge the government to reconsider the case of these students," says Cardinal John Dew, Archbishop of Wellington for the Catholic Church.

 "We do so on the basis of concern for the human situation of the students, our Christian responsibility to care for 'the stranger, the widow and the orphan' among us, and a concern for just application of New Zealand's immigration policy."

Archbishop Richardson said the Government has intervened in similar cases before, and should again.

"In a previous similar case, we understand that where documentation had been deemed falsified by immigration agents then the group was allowed to stay."

The leaders' statement, also signed by Reverend Prince Devanandan of the Methodist Church, said the students were up to date with their course fees, and most were also tax-paying workers.

"We do not deny that the NZ government has a duty to carefully scrutinise immigration applications, nor that applicants have a responsibility in regard to their applications. However these can be complicated processes and the role and legitimacy of immigration agents also needs careful scrutiny. Immigration New Zealand seems to have erred in its processes as well."

Unite union organiser Joe Carolan, who has been campaigning on behalf of the students, spoke to Prime Minister Bill English - a devout Catholic - about the students' plight at Sunday's Big Gay Out event in Auckland.

Mr English listened intently, telling Mr Carolan there was a "pretty thorough process" in place.

"He went from a defensive stance, 'Oh my god, it's Joe, what's he gonna do?' to a handshake at the end of it," Mr Carolan told Newshub.

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse, also from a Catholic family, has so far shown little sympathy for the students. He told RNZ earlier this month as far as he was concerned, they had committed immigration fraud and had to go.

Mr Carolan hopes the church's call for clemency will change Mr Woodhouse's mind.

"I'm not one to dispute their infallibility, but usually when religious leaders of that rank intervene in political debate, you know that something serious is going on."

The students have been holed up in the Unitarian Church since February 2. Their claim of sanctuary doesn't have any legal standing, according to RNZ.


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