Central Auckland church offers sanctuary to Indian students facing deportation
Nine Indian students and one toddler have hunkered down at Ponsonby's Unitarian Church in central Auckland in a final bid to remain in the country.
The group came to New Zealand on fraudulent student visas, along with more than 190 others, and were issued deportation notices last year.
Mirza Shujdh, 29, from Hyderabad, said he and his fellow students would remain in the church until they received "concrete ejection" from Immigration New Zealand.
"We are not criminals - so way are we being treated as though we have broken the law? This is our last hope," he said.
The students say they didn't discover their visas had been forged by dodgy agents until after they arrived in New Zealand.
Most of the students have completed their studies and are fighting for the year of work experience that was meant to be part of their visa deal.
Shujdh said the diploma in business administration he was awarded last year was not enough to start his career.
"I need to make a stand because I paid for and need that work experience - it is expected in India, or anywhere I'd choose to work."
He also feared a deportation stamp in his passport; "it means I can't go anywhere, and even within India it would be a hurdle to finding a job," he said.
It was unclear whether or not the students would be marked as deportees if they left the country at this point, he said.
One hundred and twenty five of the affected students had already chosen to leave the country since the deportation notices were issued in May last year.
Rev Clay Nelson said his church had offered symbolic sanctuary to the remaining students - who are not Christian - because it was "morally the right thing to do".
"They are being punished for actions that weren't their own and we believe they should be allowed to stay in New Zealand on compassionate grounds," he said.
"This [church] will be their home for an undesignated length of time until they're either packed up and deported or mercy has been given by the government."
The students moved into the Unitarian church on Monday morning and were given a breakfast of fruit and biscuits. While a statement from the church said they would be allowed in "by day", a number of students indicated they would be staying overnight.
Unitarians, union advocates and other supporters filled a third of the church's seats to make and listen to speeches about the students' plight on Monday.
Joe Carolan from Unite Union described the students as not only victims of a swindling visa agent but of wider economic perversion.
"There's a corrupt economic machine that's exploiting these students from start to finish," he said from the pulpit.
"Each of these students paid around $25,000 in fees to their schools as well as their visa fees - that's a lot of money for me, let alone for someone from a third world country - and they haven't taken a dime from New Zealand.
"They're being ripped off."
Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse said earlier that people were ultimately responsible for the accuracy of their visa documentation.
He said it was no excuse for the students to claim they were unaware of their agents' activities.
Immigration NZ's general manager for visa services, Steve Stuart, said the students had exhausted their options to remain in the country.
They have been invited to leave voluntarily, or "arrangements will be made for them to be deported".
The concept of sanctuary has no legal standing in New Zealand and Immigration NZ is expected to reveal its next move on Tuesday.