21 Feb 2023

Call for amnesty so overstayers can help with cyclone clean-up

7:13 am on 21 February 2023
Community leader Pakilau Manase Lua at Tongan Council of Churches and the Aotearoa Tonga Response Group church service.

Pakilau Manase Lua from the Aotearoa Tongan Response Group says Pacific Island workers who have overstayed their visa in New Zealand could be given an amnesty to stay and help with the clean-up after Cyclone Gabrielle. Photo: RNZ Pacific/Lydia Lewis

Overstayers in cyclone-hit regions should be granted an amnesty, a Tongan community leader says.

Aotearoa Tongan Response Group deputy chair Pakilau Manase Lua said that like many others in the region, these workers were likely in need of help, but would be too scared to come forward due to the fear of being sent back home.

He said he was worried about their safety, and called on the government to grant an amnesty.

Lua said these workers would have arrived from the Pacific under the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme and ended up overstaying their visas.

He estimated there were "a few hundred" of them in the Hawke's Bay and Gisborne regions.

Esk Valley on 20 February following Cyclone Gabrielle.

The clean-up in communities hit hard by Cyclone Gabrielle was expected to be massive, with many businesses and communities predicting months of work to recover. Photo: RNZ/ Nick Monro

"We know there are overstayers who are probably missing or no one can track, you know this is a really sensitive matter, they're not going to be waving their hands around [saying] 'here I am, here I am' because the immigration department will be on to them, and then boot them back home."

Lua said it was difficult to track these workers to check on them during the current crisis.

"You know they go home-to-home, they're living hand-to-mouth," Lua said.

"Doing all the work Kiwis don't want to do"

He said this was the time when New Zealand could put "its money where its mouth is" and help the Pacific.

"These guys are hustlers, they are survivors, they will do everything to feed their children."

Lua said most of the work done by these workers had benefited Aotearoa.

Mud and silt left behind at an Esk Valley property in Hawke's Bay on 17 February 2023 after Cyclone Gabrielle passed through.

Orchards and vineyards have been badly damaged by silt and floodwaters. Photo: RNZ / Sally Murphy

He said they had contributed by working on orchards that were bringing in billions of dollars in export earnings.

"They can't qualify for benefits, so they aren't taking from us, but they do pay tax every time they pay for petrol or buy a pack of cigarettes."

"Every dollar that they spend, 15 percent of that goes to GST."

"They are the most vulnerable, because without work how are they going survive."

He said if these overstayers were given legal status they would be able to help with the mammoth clean up effort in the affected regions.

This was a valuable workforce that was not being used at a critical time, he said.

"They're smart, they're savvy, that's why they are still here."

He said community leaders had been calling for the overstayers to be provided a pathway to residency for nearly three years.

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