Afghans' Fieldays trip deemed a flight risk

A high-powered US-backed delegation of Afghans who wanted to come to Fieldays were refused entry to New Zealand because Immigration believed they would try to stay in the country.

Just 10 days out from their scheduled arrival in New Zealand the group discovered their visas had been declined, with Immigration New Zealand saying it didn't think the group "genuinely intended to return to Afghanistan".

The 18-strong group was largely made up of Afghan business owners and senior executives and was sponsored by the US Department of Commerce.

Visiting Fieldays, with its premier feature theme of getting down to business in the global economy, was to be part of an Afghan Business Development Programme.

The delegation aimed to create international links and new opportunities for Afghanistan's economy and get fresh ideas on how to do business.

Hamilton has just permanently welcomed 18 Afghan interpreters and their families, but the Fieldays delegates were refused entry on visitor visas.

A letter from immigration officer Rachel Stechman explained that Immigration NZ had concerns that group members would remain in New Zealand unlawfully, even after considering the group's planned visit to Fieldays and participation in the Afghan Business Development Programme.

"We have weighed this against the lower standard of living in Afghanistan relative to New Zealand, as well as the significantly higher risk to personal security in Afghanistan. We consider that these are substantial disincentives for the applicants to voluntarily return to Afghanistan."

As a result, Immigration NZ did not consider the delegates bona fide applicants for temporary entry to New Zealand, she wrote.

Ms Stechman's letter said other options, such as limited visas or bonds, would not mitigate Immigration NZ's concerns.

This meant that the Afghan delegation had to cancel a trip which organisers had spent about two months planning.

"We were very disappointed. New Zealand was really the opportunity we were looking for from an agribusiness standpoint," said Brent Beck of Oxus Consulting Group, which contracts to the US Department of Commerce.

As well as visiting Fieldays, the delegation had intended to meet groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Federated Farmers and to undertake an agricultural tour.

Mr Beck said New Zealand was chosen as the destination because of its well-developed agricultural industry, and Fieldays' reputation as a leading agricultural show.

Because of the money lost through the visa rejection, the group would be unlikely to try travelling to New Zealand in the future.

Instead, Mr Beck was organising a trip to Canada, during which the group would visit mining operations and attend the 23rd World Mining Congress in Montreal.

Labour spokeswoman for Immigration, Darien Fenton, said the Afghan delegation had legitimate reasons for wanting to visit NZ.

Considering the group had 18 members, she thought it was unlikely they would try to overstay their visas.

"They could hardly just disappear into the woodwork," she said. "It doesn't sound reasonable to me."

While Ms Fenton did not expect this particular case to have an impact on international business for New Zealand, she said it did send the message that we were backward in considering new markets.

Communications executive for NZ National Agricultural Fieldays, Vicki Anniston, said she was unable to comment on the difficulties experienced by the Afghan group.

An Immigration NZ spokesman declined to make further comment.

libby.wilson@fairfaxmedia.co.nz

Waikato