A group of Indian students who were kicked out of New Zealand say their lives are ruined, and that electioneering Labour MPs, including Jacinda Ardern, promised help but went silent after coming to power.
Few people celebrated Labour's 2017 return to power more than a broke, unemployed IT grad living in his parents' spare room in India. Rahul Reddy watched in Hyderabad as a coalition government was formed. He silently clenched and pumped his fist. This, he believed, would save his and his family's fortunes.
In 2015, he had moved with his girlfriend to New Zealand to study IT and find a well-paying job. His parents gave him their life savings of $30,000. But a few months after he arrived and completed his course, it was discovered the Hyderabad immigration agency he'd used had been falsifying financial documents in dozens of people's applications. Despite Immigration New Zealand (INZ) saying Reddy was most likely one of many victims of this fraud, he would be deported.
He wanted to fight. In early 2017, he and eight other Indians who had used the same dodgy Indian agency took sanctuary in Auckland's Unitarian Church. The Ponsonby church's reverend, Clay Nelson, said the group were scapegoats. Then-Labour leader Andrew Little and MPs Jacinda Ardern and Priyanca Radhakrishnan visited them, posed for photos, publicly called for them to be allowed to stay, and promised them help should Labour attain power.
"When it came to a ministerial decision about the students being responsible for what their agent had done, the minister made the wrong decision. I want it overturned," Little told media. Ardern said it was the government's responsibility to make sure their reputations weren't "besmirched by the actions of others".
After two weeks in the church Reddy and the group finally left the country, and Labour with Ardern as leader went on to form the next government. Yet two years after his voluntary deportation, Reddy remains in India, unemployed and unable to repay his parents. At job interviews, employers always ask him about the growing gap on his CV. Others already know the reason. Reddy says the shame of being deported from a western country means he's viewed as a criminal and a fraudster. His reputation remains besmirched.
"Frankly, I don't have the same impression of New Zealand anymore," he says. "The National government didn't want to hear about our case, and I had hope for this Labour government, but it's just the same. We were very hopeful because Jacinda Ardern personally said she would help us, but we've received no such help."
Reddy's lawyer, Alastair McClymont, says the current government has "run a million miles away" from the case.
"These people expected to be returning to New Zealand almost immediately, based on the promises they were given at the church. I think they were used by Labour in an election year."
A waiting game
Soon after the election, McClymont says he tried to contact Labour MPs, but was met with silence. The students' case, however, was referred to the Ombudsman for review but, after almost a year and a half, in June last year he found he wasn't able to intervene. He said Immigration New Zealand was legally within its rights to deport them, regardless of their knowledge of wrongdoing.
The group all want to return to New Zealand to finish what they started, and for this to happen, their last chance to wipe their slates clean is clemency. Associate Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi's office says it is reviewing three applications for the group for Special Directions, which can essentially cancel someone's deportation. Yet McClymont says he filed two more in mid-December: "The fact that they haven't been entered into the system yet tells you a lot about the number of people approaching the Minister for intervention," he says.
Because of this, McClymont doesn't expect a decision soon, yet he says any Special Direction application can be pulled out of the queue at the Minister's discretion. Rahul Reddy isn't even one of the five to have had an application filed, as they are essentially test cases. He must await their outcome. "And yet it took 45 minutes for the Immigration Minister to agonise over deciding to allow convicted drug smuggler to live in New Zealand," McClymont adds.
Spokespeople for Faafoi and Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway say any comment before a decision is made could jeopardise the process. Meanwhile, Labour MP Priyanca Radhakrishnan says over the past two years she has tried to ensure the students' concerns have been heard, but wouldn't make any further comment. Jacinda Ardern's office didn't respond.
McClymont isn't satisfied. He believes the group were pawns of Labour's electioneering: "I might stop short of saying they were lied to, but they were given very strong assurances by Andrew Little and Jacinda Ardern."
He acknowledges that dozens of other Indians were deported in 2017, including others who employed the Sunrise agency, but says the group of nine continue to battle because of their sense of injustice: "They were the victims. They had been ripped off. They were good students, the majority of whom had already completed their courses, and yet they were punished for the sins of offshore agents that were paid big commissions by New Zealand schools."
Through the front door
Reddy is one of many Indians who feel burned by New Zealand. They are the victims of fraudsters, but also the rapid growth of our international education industry. The reverend of the church that took him in, Clay Nelson, told RNZ at the time: "We're making a lot of money in New Zealand by selling, in many cases, sub-standard education to international students around the world."
In the past 10 years, international student enrolments have increased by about 30 percent, while the value of the industry has more than doubled to $5.1 billion. The average international student expects to spend more than $40,000 to study in New Zealand.
International education is our fourth biggest export industry, and as it made people more money, enrolments from India soared. Between 2010 and 2015, there was an almost 150 percent increase. By 2015, Indians made up more than a quarter of foreign students. And as enrolments increased, so too did the number of fraudsters seeking to take advantage of vulnerable people.
Here in New Zealand, private education institutions sprung up that paid these overseas agents commissions to send international students their way. Some offered qualifications that, according to Universities New Zealand director Chris Whelan, weren't worth the paper they were printed on: "These education providers were essentially selling pathways to work, and then residency," he says.
India became rife for exploitation. "For most of the international students from India, the ultimate dream is gaining permanent residency here. There's a lot of status attached to returning to India with residency in a western country. For that expectation, they are willing to invest an awful lot," says Migrant Workers Association spokesperson, Anu Kaloti.
It's no secret that residency has been a lure. In the past, visa approval letters sent by INZ directly suggested study and work experience could be a "pathway to residency." McClymont says the international education industry is built on a lie: "When politicians stand in front of the media and say it's about students coming here for our world class education system, it's false." He says representatives from government agencies have in the past been known to promote residency pathways at education fairs in India.
"A vast number of visitors pay for a qualification so they can qualify for work rights and then gain residency. It's a system designed to make money for the country. It's not 'back door' to residency - people have been walking in through the front door."
A $5 billion industry
By 2015 and 2016, Immigration New Zealand was frequently expressing concern about Indian immigration agencies falsifying documents. In a newsletter, the agency warned many foreign students desperate for work and residency would be at risk of exploitation, which could harm the country's reputation as an education destination. By this point, INZ was rejecting the majority of Indian applications.
Immigration New Zealand says massive improvements have been made since 2017. One of the most significant steps, the agency says, was the creation, in April last year, of a "Risk and Verification Manager" role in its Mumbai office, where Indian student visa applications are processed. The manager is responsible for "identifying and reducing fraud". Meanwhile, 19 verification roles have been created in New Zealand since last July, and 40 similar overseas roles will be phased in by this July.
McClymont, however, says there's still a long way to go. "If an agency gets a bad name, it will just change its name and operate somewhere else. I've already started to see the face of the fraud and exploitation changing - once one loophole is closed, people find another one."
INZ says its measures are working, though: In 2016, more than 16,000 applications were lodged in India, whereas last year, there were about 9000. Meanwhile, the approval rate has jumped from 46 to 68 percent.
Improvements have also been made here to curb labour exploitation. Another common problem has been under-the-table deals between private education institutions and employers. Chris Whelan says: "There have been cases where a student might complete one of these shoddy courses and go straight into work at, say, a fast-food restaurant, and they're paid well below minimum wage because there's a kickback to the owner or manager. Once they get enough points for residency, the job goes to the next student." The current government has made changes to prevent worker exploitation like this, including last year removing employer-assisted post-study work visas.
Labour didn't start the clampdown, though. The previous National government eventually realised it had to leash a monster created under its watch. In late 2016, then-Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce told 40 private institutions with high rates of rejected visa applications they could lose their right to enrol students unless the quality of those applications dramatically improved. They were also told to do their own reference checks and would be punished if they failed to terminate contracts with overseas agents if there was any evidence of illegal behaviour.
In response, private tertiary institutions conceded a fall in visas for Indian students would be financially catastrophic. The Auckland International Education Group, which represents 16 institutions, told RNZ plummeting numbers would be a disaster for their industry.
Over the past two years, investigations by NZQA and the Tertiary Education Commission have led to many private education providers being more closely monitored, or wound up altogether, says Whelan. "This is a $5 billion industry - we can't afford to have a lot of bad stories out there. A lot of international students come here to genuinely get a high quality education - and they want to come to the safest, most trustworthy countries."
'They don't understand'
But none of that helps the students who came here as dodgy agencies proliferated, and were deported with their reputations in tatters.
A few weeks before moving into the Unitarian Church, Rahul Reddy met Manoj Narra, a software engineer in his late-twenties who had applied for a visa through the same agency as Reddy - Sunrise. Both from Hyderabad, they had been left in the lurch by Sunrise, whose agents had vanished - the agency's voicemail simply saying it had shut up shop - and are both now struggling with similar circumstances.
To move to New Zealand, Narra borrowed $40,000 from his father, a mechanic, and other relatives. Narra would be the first in his family to go on to higher education. "My parents told me to pursue whatever dream I had … New Zealand is a multicultural country that is welcoming of people from all over the world, so I wanted to develop my skills in a place like this," he says.
Three months after arriving, he was told he had to leave: "It was the worst day of my life." His fight to stay in the country made the local news back home. But rather than sympathising with his predicament, his family struggled to grasp why he was being deported. When he did return home, he was ostracised.
"I'm still unable to face my family and my parents because of the shame - a part of me feels like I made a mistake, even though I know I didn't. My parents aren't able to face their relatives who lent me money. They have faced a lot of insults from them. I have been treated like a thief because they don't understand."
Narra now relies on a friend for a place to stay, and like Reddy, has been unemployed for almost two years: "When employers find out I was deported, they don't want to give me a job." And like Reddy, he hoped a change in government would change his circumstances, and deliver, as he puts it, "justice".
Narra is one of the three Special Direction applications under review by Kris Faafoi. "This is a dark spot that threatens my life and career. I feel like I lost my life in New Zealand. My life has totally stagnated, I just want to move forward again."
Anu Kaloti keeps in touch with most of the group from Hyderabad. She says all are in an almost identical situations to Reddy and Narra, including one whose family sold a vast portion of its farming land to pay for him to come here. "Returning home as deportees from a first-world country, they are seen as failures and criminals by their society. It's assumed they've done something really bad," she says.
She was at the Unitarian Church when Labour MPs came to visit. "Jacinda Ardern did say it was the government's responsibility to make sure these students' reputations aren't "besmirched", and while no official or organisation has found they are of bad character, it disappoints me, it disheartens me and it outrages me what has happened to them."
Rahul Reddy waited until the week before he left New Zealand to tell his parents he was coming home early. He took the bus from Hyderabad airport because his paralysed father was unable to pick him up. Soon after arriving, he made the journey to the building where the Sunrise Overseas Education Consultancy was based, but its former office was empty.
His girlfriend remains in New Zealand. "We were supposed to get married, but we've had to delay everything," he says. He remains pragmatic, though: "I'll manage. I'll try to do something, anything, any job, even if it wont help me with my debt or help me take care of my parents. I don't know where I'm going to land, that's for sure, but I'll land somewhere."
AN UPDATE: After this story was published, Jacinda Ardern said it was no longer appropriate for her to advocate for the group while the government was actively considering some of the students' cases. She said Labour MP Deborah Russell had picked up the case and was supporting the students applications to reverse the deportation orders. Read more here