Immigration officials are investigating a major scam involving student visa applications from Sri Lanka.
The New Zealand immigration office in Mumbai that handles Sri Lankan applications received a tip off at the start of the year.
Inquiries led officials to conclude a Sri Lankan based company was fraudulently creating documentation to help students meet the criteria of having money in the bank.
Official briefings to Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway show investigations are under way into the potential involvement of education agents in Sri Lanka, the finance company, whose name is redacted in the papers, and students as a result of these revelations.
There were 88 pending applications when the fraud was discovered and after further checks were done 83 were declined. The tip-off was in January.
The National Party wants to know why hundreds of past visas that have been granted to Sri Lankan students won’t be reviewed. The papers said a number of New Zealand educational providers had been affected and they had been told about what had happened and warned about the impact of student numbers in the future. There was also an allegation “students paid an additional fee to secure the documentation” which was under further investigation. But the company will still be involved in the student visa application system, though under “intensive scrutiny and increased verification”.
From 2015 to 2017 there were about 5000 student visa applications from Sri Lanka of which about 3800 were approved. The documents do not make it clear how long officials think the scam has been going on.
Former Immigration Minister and National Party spokesperson Michael Woodhouse asked Mr Lees-Galloway whether he would look at past years to make sure the visas approved were legitimate. Mr Lees-Galloway said that after scrutinising, then rejecting, most of the 88 applications the focus would now be on any future signs of fraud. “To identify applications with similar characteristics already decided by INZ [Immigration New Zealand] would require substantial collation which I do not believe is in the public interest.”
According to Mr Woodhouse up to half of Sri Lankan applicants could have used the company “fraudulently”, and said that should be enough for officials to find how widespread any fraud was.
They were arriving in New Zealand ripe for exploitation as they had no money to support themselves, he said. “I’m concerned that they are perpetrators but also potential victims.” It was “extraordinary” that the minister admitted no work had been done to review past applications. “Of course it’s in the public interest to make sure our visa system has integrity.”