New Zealand intensifies hunt for 39 missing Indians

July 16th, 2008 - 8:06 pm ICT by IANS  

By Neena Bhandari
Sydney, July 16 (IANS) Thirty-nine Indians, mostly Catholics from Punjab, who disappeared in New Zealand en route to attend the Catholic Church’s week-long World Youth Day (WYD) festivities in Sydney, were still at large as New Zealand immigration officials Wednesday intensified their search to locate them. It is believed the 39 out of the 220 Indians, who were given one-month visitor visa for New Zealand in early July, disappeared after discovering that their Indian migration agent had wrongly promised them permanent residency visas despite taking NZ$ 17,000 (US$ 13,115) from each of them.

Officials from the Department of Labour, which is also in charge of immigration, Wednesday met the Indian High Commissioner in New Zealand and two Indian Sikh community leaders in Auckland to trace the missing Indians.

“In the next few days immigration officials, community leaders and the Indian High Commission will work together to locate and speak to the pilgrims,” Department of Labour said in a statement.

“Immigration officials will remind them of their responsibilities under their visitor permits (for example, not to work) and offer to assist their outward travel within the period of their permits,” a spokesperson for the department said.

The absconding Indians have valid visitor visa to remain legally in New Zealand until Aug 5 or 6. However, people overstaying their visas is said to be a big problem in that country.

Immigration lawyer Simon Laurent told Radio New Zealand: “The problem of overstayers is so huge that the chances of them being actually picked up may be in fact not so significant because there are tens of thousands of overstayers for instance in Auckland; they could well blend into the general population and simply remain here unlawfully for years like thousands of others.”

Some of those who are missing absconded from Auckland International Airport on arrival in New Zealand in early July, while others absconded from their billets, all but one leaving their luggage there, according to the Department of Labour.

After the 39 Indians Tuesday failed to board the flight to Sydney, where Pope Benedict XVI will lead WYD celebrations beginning Thursday, representatives of the Catholic Church, which sponsored their transit through New Zealand, have handed the passports of 38 of them to immigration officials. One person is said to be in possession of his own passport.

New Zealand Sikh Society spokesman Daljit Singh, who is in touch with some of the missing Indians, told Radio New Zealand that he understood more members of the group were planning to try and stay on in Sydney after the WYD events end July 20.

Singh told the local media: “We are trying to arrange a meeting between the immigration service and these people so we can go to the main purpose, which is who is the main culprit in India who actually made all these arrangements.”

In what is now emerging as an immigration scam, the Indians, aged between 17 and 35, have gone missing in Auckland and possibly the Bay of Plenty and Hawke’s Bay region.

Meanwhile, Sikh Association spokesperson Verpal Singh has told Radio New Zealand that immigration scams involving New Zealand’s Indian community, numbering 105,000 according to the 2006 census, are common and highly organised and there is probably also a local contact getting a cut of the money.

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