20 Jun 2020

Covid-19: Government gives $67 million to help stranded foreigners

12:39 pm on 20 June 2020

The government has poured $67 million of emergency relief funding in less than two months into helping mostly-struggling foreign nationals stranded in New Zealand as a result of the Covid crisis.

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In an ideal world foreign nationals would return home, but circumstances meant in some cases that could not happen, ministers said. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

While there are no hard numbers on just how many foreigners are stuck here unable to get home, the government says - based on available information - there could be approximately 20,000 individuals experiencing serious hardship.

On 22 April, the government announced $30m for the Civil Defence to distribute money to help anyone, regardless of citizenship, who needed immediate help with food, transport, clothing and accommodation.

In just over a month more than half of that money had already been spent and at the start of June Civil Defence Minister Peeni Henare told RNZ he expected the rest of it to go just as quickly.

That meant coming up with more money, and fast.

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This week Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters and Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector Poto Williams announced a second tranche of funding - this time $37.6m - specifically for foreign nationals.

"Due to the exceptional circumstances that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused, this programme will continue the assistance provided by the Civil Defence and Emergency Management Groups," Williams said.

"This programme will provide short-term assistance until they find means of supporting themselves in New Zealand or are able to return home," she said.

Earlier this month Salvation Army captain Gerry Walker said the number of people needing help had gone through the roof and was only just starting to level off, but demand was still well above pre-Covid times.

At its peak, close to 6500 food parcels were handed out and he was predicting another wave.

The second wave for the most part looks to be focused on foreign nationals.

While the initial Civil Defence fund was agnostic to citizenship and New Zealanders were also accessing it, Henare told RNZ, ''it is fair to say that foreign nationals did not have access to the same welfare support mechanisms that New Zealanders have, so this fund would have been of particular importance to foreign nationals in need''.

''Immediate welfare support, for example access to food and groceries, required to support people during the response to Covid-19 have continued to decrease as the alert levels have decreased,'' Henare said.

"New Zealand nationals experiencing hardship are being supported by social sector agencies,'' he said.

  • If you have symptoms of the coronavirus, call the NZ Covid-19 Healthline on 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs) or call your GP - don't show up at a medical centre

Both Henare and Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said in an ideal world foreign nationals would return home but circumstances meant that could not happen and Peters acknowledged many had found themselves miles away from home and ''in a tight spot''.

Peters said foreign nationals should be seeking to depart New Zealand as soon as possible if they cannot support themselves here, and should contact their embassy, high commission or consulate for assistance in the first instance.

"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade will continue to work closely with foreign missions to help them provide consular support for their citizens who remain in New Zealand."

Repatriation is still ongoing, including an announcement by Peters and Defence Minister Ron Mark this week that more than 1000 stranded Vanuatu nationals will be flown home.

"With no commercial flight options available, the Vanuatu nationals who are largely made up of Recognised Seasonal Employment (RSE) workers, will return to Vanuatu on New Zealand Defence Force flights over the coming week," Peters said.

The RNZAF will operate a Boeing 757 Aircraft, which will conduct the eight flights over a number of days.

These flights will be split between Christchurch Airport and Whenuapai Air Force Base in Auckland and each flight will transport approximately 130 people.

Where returning home is not immediately possible, Peters said help will be provided under the Assistance for Foreign Nationals Programme to temporary visa holders.

To qualify the individual must be experiencing serious hardship, and all other avenues of potential support have been exhausted, such as access to savings or other assets, insurance cover, consular assistance from their own foreign missions, or help from family and friends.

The funding will be administered by the Department of Internal Affairs and the programme will run for three months from 1 July.

An announcement about which NGO (non-governmental organisation) will coordinate it will be made soon.

Until then the Civil Defence will continue to reimburse community organisations and NGOs providing emergency relief across the country.

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