Indian families are marrying their drug-addicted sons to young women and paying for the women’s study here in New Zealand as a pathway to residency for their sons.
Known as ‘IELTS Brides’ – named for one of the International English Language Testing Systems that a student must pass to study abroad – the women are typically educated and able to get student visas to countries such as New Zealand, something that would be impossible for the addicted men.
The men’s families hope the move will help them clean up and remove the stain from their family name, but the young women who enter arranged marriages with them are often trapped in violent relationships and cut off from family at home.
With their in-laws paying for education and travel fees, they are then treated like “slaves”.
While Immigration New Zealand said it had not received any complaints about IELTS brides, an investigation by Voices, in conjunction with RNZ education correspondent John Gerritsen uncovered a growing number of such cases in New Zealand.
Organisations working with ethnic communities in New Zealand say it’s a growing concern. One community worker estimated the number of IELTS brides in the country was “at least double figures”.
One of the brides, who we’re calling Khushi to protect her identity, is facing deportation now that her student visa has run out. Her husband’s family filled out the application for her, she said. Immigration New Zealand said some of it was fraudulent.
Khushi desperately wants to see her sick father. She wants to be reunited with her family but said if she goes back then her husband’s family might kill her.
I met with Khushi at her home, where the curtains were partially closed. The darkened room was bare: a bed, a few clothes, all the things she owns could fit into a suitcase. She was distraught.
“I want to meet my parent. But I can’t go back. If I go, he will kill me. He will kill me.”
She was talking about her husband and his family. According to Khushi, her in-laws are wealthy, an influential and powerful family that wields a long reach from Punjab.
Determined to protect her first ‘IELTS Bride’ case, Anu Kaloti is a founding member of the Migrant Workers’ Association and comes from Punjab herself. Khushi’s story is not rare, she said. Drug addiction among young men is rife throughout the region.
“A classic scenario. A young female is well educated, the husband is wealthy and uneducated. That marriage is arranged on the condition – [the women] will be the one applying for the visa to study.”
Former farming families may come into a lot of money thanks to rising land prices but their sons have little motivation to work and can fall into drug or alcohol abuse. They become burdens, so their family will advertise for a well-educated woman able to pass the IELTS test.
“The husband’s family will fund the entire thing. The husband’s family get to keep control. A marriage based on – like a business deal.”
It is a way out of India and a way to hide their shame.
For Khushi, it started with her marriage in 2014.
“To be honest we are poor. My parents thought this would be okay. Within three days of marriage, I came to know he was taking drugs.”
What kind of drugs?
“Heroin," she said. “He would inject it. My mother-in-law bought it for him. If she didn’t he would threaten suicide.”
Khushi said that there were many more young Indian students, IELTS brides, like herself, living in Auckland.
At Sahaayta Counselling and Social Support Services in Counties Manukau, counsellor Zoya Kara has seen a concerning rise in cases like Khushi’s in recent years. It began in 2014 with the exponential rise in enrolments by international students.
“You are giving them hope [with] one year ‘open job search visas.”
Khushi’s lawyer Alastair McClymont has about half a dozen IELTS bride cases on his books,
“After marriage, her husband’s family controlled every aspect of her life including the visa process to come to New Zealand,” he said.
“She’s now being accused by Immigration New Zealand of providing false documentation in her student visa application, something that she was completely unaware of.”
He said Khushi had proof that her documents were tampered with, evidence of fraud that was not her doing. But the outlook is still grim.
“Immigration New Zealand [take] the position that an applicant must stand in the shoes of the agent. Anything that the agent does, in terms of lying, false documentation, becomes the responsibility of the applicant, whether or not they knew what the agent was doing.”
INZ is wary of relationship fraud. In the past seven and a half years they’ve received more than 1300 complaints about dubious couples.
If she was deported to India, though, Mr McClymont said Khushi faced retribution.
“This family appears to have had an expectation that it was this woman’s responsibility to not only bring their son to New Zealand but to ensure their son became a resident here in New Zealand.”
“The fact that it is the husband who committed the domestic violence that got him deported, seems completely immaterial to the husband’s demand of the return of the money. They are threatening her, they’re threatening her family.”
“I’m totally in fear for my life,” said Khushi, “don’t send me back, please. Don’t send me back. They will kill me.”
Immigration New Zealand said that scams should be reported, that the culture needs to be changed.
The Labour Inspectorate encourages anyone in this situation or who knows of people in this situation to phone our call centre on 0800 20 90 20 where your concerns will be handled in a safe environment.
Where to get help:
Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.
Lifeline: 0800 543 354
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.
Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7)