In what appears to be an immigration scam, another three Indian pilgrims in transit in New Zealand en route to Australia for the weeklong World Youth Day festivities have gone missing, bringing the total to 35.
The pilgrims, aged between 17 and 35, have left their host families and gone missing in Auckland.
"Immigration New Zealand is investigating allegations that the disappearance of the pilgrims is part of an immigration scam. It cannot comment further on this at this stage," according to a statement released on Tuesday by New Zealand's Department of Labour, which is in charge of immigration.
Daljit Singh, a Sikh spokesperson and justice of the peace, told Radio New Zealand he understood that at least 12 of the missing people had paid Rs 500,000 (approx US$11,500) to agents in India who told them they could stay in New Zealand after entering the country with the Catholic group.
Singh told the radio that he understood more members of the group planned to try to stay in Sydney after the week's events.
As many as 220 Indian pilgrims, who were given one-month New Zealand visitor visas earlier in July, are due to leave New Zealand on various flights on Tuesday evening.
Some of those who are missing absconded from the 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.
The pilgrims were billeted with church members in Auckland, not specifically Indian catholic families, under so-called Days in the Diocese programme.
"When they are located Immigration New Zealand will encourage the missing pilgrims to continue their travel, but their visitor permits allow them to remain legally in New Zealand until Aug 5 or 6 (i.e., one month after arrival - they arrived on different days in early July)," a spokesperson of the department said.
The pilgrims were issued group visas for one month by Immigration New Zealand's New Delhi branch, in consultation with Australian authorities offshore and the Catholic Church in India, which had nominated the pilgrims for travel to World Youth Day and had carried out a robust verification process.
The passports of the all the Indian pilgrims have been held by church leaders while they have been in New Zealand and were returned to those leaving at Auckland Airport on Tuesday.
Immigration New Zealand is maintaining close contact with the Catholic Church in Auckland in efforts to locate the missing pilgrims.