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Respite for migrants caught in visa fraud

Vinu Choodal is a welder from Kerala, India. (Photo: RNZ/Blessen Tom)

Vinu Choodal is slowly settling in the South Island, building a new life after a rough first four months in New Zealand.

"Life is okay - finally," he says.

Choodal, 36, was one of the 115 workers trapped in six properties across Auckland a few months ago, prompting an Immigration New Zealand investigation.

The investigation made its first arrest in October after a licensed immigration advisor was charged with two charges of providing false information, carrying a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.

The incident also prompted the under-fire Labour government to put the accredited employer work visa scheme under review.

In September, the government unveiled an initiative aimed at rescuing scammed workers from further exploitation, offering temporary accommodation and cost-of-living support payments to help them get back on their feet.

Choodal says it was a challenging experience being crammed into a crowded house in Papakura for several weeks with 30 other workers from India and Bangladesh.

"It was a bad experience, one that I never expected from a country such as New Zealand," Choodal says.

The houses in Papakura were finally vacated after Auckland Council issued notices highlighting the properties' unsanitary condition.

"I didn't go to the temporary accommodation because a friend arranged a job for me in Dunedin," Choodal says.

A welder by trade, Choodal had worked in India for the past few years and paid $20,000 to an agent for a visa and related job in New Zealand. Choodal currently works as a panel beater in Dunedin.

After his accommodation ordeal in Auckland, Choodal demanded a refund from his agents in India.

"I got $4000 back but will try to get more of my money back because I paid for a service and I didn't get that," he says.

Additionally, he plans to lodge a complaint against the agency with NORKA (Non-Resident Keralites Affairs) Roots, a government department that handles the grievances of migrants from Kerala.

Choodal says that he's still a bit worried about his visa. He's now on migrant exploitation protection work visa that is valid through 31 March.

"My new employer has told me that they are ready to support my visa," Choodal says.

Prasad Babu, who had been living with Choodal at the Papakura house, has since found employment in the construction industry.

"I'm grateful for the job but I'm worried about my visa," says Babu, who's also on a migrant exploitation protection work visa that is valid through 31 March.

Babu says he was sick for a few days and struggled to get immediate treatment in Auckland as he had to wait more than eight hours to be seen by a doctor.

"I was really depressed after that and I'm thinking whether I want to stay here for long or not," Babu says.

However, he still hopes that things will improve.

Choodal, on the other hand, describes life in Dunedin as good.

He has found people from Kerala, his hometown, which has made his experience better. He stays in touch with a few individuals from the Papakura house, noting that some have moved to Napier and also appeared to be content.

"They all seem pretty happy over there," he says.

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