Revealed: Millions spent attracting migrants during COVID-19 border closure

Auckland Airport
Auckland Airport Photo credit: Getty Images

By Gill Bonnett for RNZ

The Government has spent $112,000 out of a $900,000 allocation to repatriate migrants who could not afford plane tickets to fly back to their home countries, Budget documents show.

While borders remained closed, the Government also spent $11 million on attracting migrants to come here.

It has also emerged the Government spent almost a quarter of a billion dollars in plugging a black hole in immigration's visa account finances.

Last week's budget recorded the $242m spent in February to "reduce the accumulated COVID-19 related deficit", which still leaves a $56m deficit.

Immigration New Zealand's (INZ) visa account was already $58m in the red before borders closed last year but that more than doubled in the following four months and continued to grow.

Budget documents show the Government spent $900,000 in the current financial year on "repayable financial assistance to foreign nationals on temporary visas in need of support to return home". RNZ has asked how much of the money has been repaid.

When the repatriation scheme emerged in September, INZ stressed the money would have to be repaid if immigrants want to return to New Zealand in the future. Those who would be eligible included workers made redundant and visitors whose funds had run out, and who could not get help from other sources such as their embassy.

The Budget figures show $11m will be spent in the next financial year on attracting migrants to come here. Another $19m in funds allocated for travel costs in the migrant attraction budget was last year re-purposed.

The figures showed immigration spent $23m more than budgeted last year, some on the closure of its overseas offices where staff had not been able to work during the pandemic. Offices in Mumbai, Manila and Pretoria closed this year and 329 people lost their jobs.

It is not clear from Budget figures how much money has been set aside to refund migrants who have withdrawn their residence applications.

Almost 3000 migrants had received refunds in the 12 months to September, more than in the three previous years combined, and totalling nearly $1.4 million.

That was before the Ombudsman's ruling last month on INZ's residence scheme, that paved the way for refunds to skilled migrants who had unwittingly joined a non-priority queue behind fast-tracked applications.

In a statement, INZ said the immigration system was facing an unprecedented challenge in the wake of the pandemic and it was being provided with $173m in the next financial year to replace lost third-party revenue.

"With border restrictions remaining in place for more than a year incoming visa volumes have decreased significantly across a number of visa categories," the statement from INZ deputy head Stephen Vaughan said.

"A large percentage of Immigration New Zealand's expenditure is fixed in nature. It is therefore not possible for INZ to make commensurate reductions in expenditure to match the drop in revenue experienced as a consequence of border closures. This has resulted in significant deficits in the memo accounts. It would be unreasonable to expect future fee payers to cover this deficit."

Visas applications fell from 1.3m with $226m revenue from fees in the 2018/9 year to 500,000 applications and third party revenue of $96m.

"There are a number of cost reduction initiatives underway at INZ including the planned closure of all offshore visa processing offices apart from those in the Pacific," Vaughn said. "INZ is also improving its technology to transition to an online, efficient, flexible and resilient visa processing system."

Of the $900,000 allocated to repayable financial assistance to foreign nationals needing to return home, $112,000 of the fund had been spent. A $400 partial repayment had been received from one family group and two other family groups had started the process to enquire about repayment.

The money to attract migrants was spent on personnel, contractors, travel, ICT and communications, equipment and occupancy, as well as professional and technical services, he said.