A considerable number of Indian students could have gained study visas with false financial documents, Immigration New Zealand says.
Immigration New Zealand is reported to have sent deportation liability notices to a number of international students studying in this country, following an investigation of visa application documents.
The department's assistant general manager, Geoff Scott, said students had to prove they had enough money to support themselves while studying in this country and in some cases that evidence had been faked.
It did not know the scale of the problem but it was worried that a considerable number of students could be affected, Mr Scott said.
It was important students had enough money to support themselves, he said.
"We've had some very tragic circumstances where students have ended up with absolutely no money, significant amounts of debt back in India. The debt is either [on] them personally and/or the family are indebted to such an extent that the outcomes are sometimes quite tragic."
Immigration lawyer Alastair McClymont said the students might not know any fraud had been committed.
He said he was acting for a dozen students fighting deportation and they all had basically the same story.
"They put their trust in the education agent to apply for a student visa on their behalf and they knew nothing about the documents that the agents were submitting to Immigration New Zealand," he said.
Mr McClymont said the students were surprised when Immigration New Zealand told them their visa applications included false information.
"It came as an enormous shock to our clients. This is the first time they were made aware of the existence of some of these documents."
Mr McClymont said the students' agents supplied false information because it was less effort than trying to provide a paper-trail for families that did not use banks.
The students should not be sent home, he said.
"If they are deported they will not be able to finish their qualifications, they're not going to get a refund of their money, the school gets to keep their money, the education agents keep their commission and these students and their families have basically lost everything that they've been working for."
Mr McClymont said the problem was relatively common and could affect hundreds of students.
Mr Scott said Immigration New Zealand would consider each case on its merits but if the students had enough money to support themselves, they would have to prove it.
"We would have to understand where that money's come from because obviously the presentation of documents to say they had money in the first instance has proven to be fraudulent.
"The concern we obviously would then have is that any subsequent proof of funds could well be fraudulent as well."
Other countries facing similar problems - Joyce
Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce said Immigration New Zealand was not being heavy-handed.
"We do have some rules that we expect people to follow, and people that fail to follow those rules will have to go home early."
Other countries were wrestling with similar problems, Mr Joyce said.
"There are some agents in the Indian market who have been behaving inappropriately, unscrupulously, but that is common to a number of countries that operate in India - the Canadians, the Australians, the UK, US have all experienced similar sorts of issues."
Mr McClymont said, instead of punishing students, the government should license education agents just as it required licensing for immigration advisors.
But Mr Joyce said most education agents did a good job and the best approach was to squeeze bad agents out of business.
Independent Tertiary Institutions New Zealand board member Richard Goodall also opposed licensing.
It might reduce the number of students coming to New Zealand, he said.
"If getting the licence is an onerous task there'll be some agents who simply won't bother because we compete with UK, USA Canada and Australia.
"If you don't need to be licensed as an education agent to send students to those countries, they're going to say, 'let's not bother with New Zealand, we'll send them to somewhere else'."