Politics / Covid 19

Govt's emergency welfare fund depletes with foreigners still stranded

08:26 am on 3 June 2020

More than half of a $30 million emergency welfare fund has been spent in just over a month, and many of those in need are foreigners and migrant workers who can't get home.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

With the borders still closed and unemployment skyrocketing, the government is now looking at more support - and at the rate the money is already being soaked up the extra help will be needed in just a matter of weeks.

Initially, it was Queenstown that the government pinpointed as a hotspot where foreign nationals and migrant workers were holed up during the lockdown with little or no help.

In Otago, there have been more than 4500 requests for assistance from foreigners.

Civil Defence Minister Peeni Henare could not put a number on just how many people were affected. He said a lot of demand was being seen in Auckland.

"What wasn't known was just how many are in Auckland, which is where the biggest population is. Over the lockdown time, we were able to see those numbers were increasing and it was a fair sign that there are lots more out there we haven't quite reached yet," Henare said.

Civil Defence Minister Peeni Henare. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

As long as the borders are closed people can't return home - and for many of them, that is places like South America and Europe.

"We've made it clear at the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown that we would do all we can to support as many people possible, and that includes foreign nationals and we're still committed to that, but that can't be a long term plan," Henare said.

Under the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act money is being distributed to help anyone, regardless of citizenship, who needs immediate help with food, transport, clothing, and accommodation.

Rachel Reece works for the Queenstown Citizens' Advice Bureau and said most of the people she saw were migrant workers on sponsored work visas who had been made redundant.

"One of the other issues that we're faced with is that a lot of them are on fixed-term tenancy and they're not able to break these tenancies with the property managers or landlords without incurring huge cost," Reece said.

Most have no idea what the future holds.

"Our migrant workforce is very, very concerned about what their future is and if they're going to be able to legally stay in Queenstown, if there's going to be jobs for them,'' she said.

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 is predicting another wave.

"Certainly once we see more unemployment, and unfortunately it is predicted unemployment will rise when wage subsidies come off when employers determine whether, in fact, they can weather through this,'' he said.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway has warned migrant workers: "People do have to consider what the future holds for them. For many people who are currently on valid visas, who are working on valid visas, when those visas expire the labour market test will be applied and the labour market could look very different in the future."

But Henare said it was not as easy as just putting people on a plane.

"Ideally we'd send people home, but we were committed to supporting people during this time," he said.

"The border issue is a significant issue."

Henare is expecting the rest of the emergency funding to be spent as quickly as the first $15m.

While the assistance doesn't discriminate against where people call home, Henare is encouraging foreigners to contact their embassies to see what other help they can get.