By Gill Bonnett of RNZ
The Government has agreed to pay for repatriation flights for stranded immigrants who cannot afford to buy tickets to their home countries.
The Department of Internal Affairs and the Red Cross will first assess whether temporary visa holders can fund their own return travel, or if their embassy will assist.
The Association for Migration and Investment says that estimates on how many people may take up the offer are in the region of 7000 people.
They include workers who have lost their jobs and visitors whose funds have dried up.
Immigration New Zealand does not say how much it will cost but stresses the money will have to be repaid if immigrants want to return to New Zealand in the future.
"In exceptional cases, INZ is assisting with the payment of repatriation costs for individuals who are assessed as eligible for assistance by the Department of Internal Affairs under the DIA/Red Cross Foreign Nationals Support Programme," a spokesperson said.
"Under the programme, DIA provides information to people who are assessed as being in hardship about the potential for INZ to help them with the cost of their travel home, if they cannot meet these costs themselves and are unable to obtain assistance from their home country, High Commission or Consulate."
The spokesperson said INZ had limited funds to use on the initiative and tickets would also be limited by how many flights were available as well as any transit or entry requirements for the return to a migrant's home country, and whether they hold a valid travel document.
"This is being paid for by limited surplus funds from INZ's deportations budget which cannot otherwise be used at this time due to the same constraints being experienced by stranded migrants such as travel restrictions including flight availability, transit options and border closures," the spokesperson said.
"Some of these factors will also make it difficult for the repatriation initiative to get some eligible home. People who are deemed eligible and use this assistance are required to repay the costs of their repatriation before they will be issued a visa to return to New Zealand."
Association for Migration and Investment chair June Ranson said the initiative had not been announced publicly by the government but the scheme went live this week.
It would be a relief from the mental anguish some had been suffering, she said.
"Migrants need to be able to see proper advice to see if they have got any opportunities to be able to stay here - but you've got people here, temporary visa holders who are stranded," she said.
"They are experiencing hardship, they can't get flights to go home and it's not easy for them. So, providing they meet the criteria, and they really need to go home, they need to make contact with the Department of Internal Affairs, who will make the assessment.
"It's looking at the financial ability of the individuals to pay, they need to be looking to see if there are flights available, they need to be talking to their embassies and consulates, and if they won't assist them, [then] go to the Department of Internal Affairs."