IRD 'like loan sharks': Student loan defaulter's UK exile

A Kiwi student loan defaulter says she is too scared to return to New Zealand for fear of being...
A Kiwi student loan defaulter says she is too scared to return to New Zealand for fear of being arrested. Photo: File/NZ Herald
A Kiwi in the United Kingdom says she's a student loan exile - unable to come home to take care of her mother because she fears being arrested at the border.

The woman estimates her student loan is now more than $100,000. She blocked contact from Inland Revenue about five years ago, saying attempts to organise affordable repayments had failed and the stress was overwhelming her.

News of another student loan defaulter being arrested at Auckland Airport had left her more convinced she couldn't come home.

"I feel so guilty because I have friends who did have to pay their loans back. I really feel strongly that I want to pay a reasonable amount back, but if I start paying any back then they are going to know where I am, have my information and they are going to demand it all. And I'll never be free of it.

"They have been charging the interest and charging the interest, and now I feel like I'm in exile."

The woman, who asked not to be identified, had been back to New Zealand twice, once when her father died and she helped her mother move home.

"My mother has always been sick, and I had to help her move. I was terrified the whole time that I would be arrested, and I haven't been back since ... I just accepted a long time ago that probably my mum is going to die pretty soon, and I'm just not going to be there."

There have been nine arrest warrants executed since a 2014 law change allowed student loan defaulters to be arrested at the border. That number includes five arrests since Labour came to power, including the latest - a woman detained on Friday as she tried to fly back to the United States.

An Inland Revenue spokesman, responding to the latest arrest warrant, said the hardline measure was "very much an action of last resort after all other avenues have been exhausted".

"The best advice we can give overseas based borrowers is to pay any outstanding amounts. If that is not possible, we encourage borrowers to talk with us about their situation. Our staff are always willing to help and we have various relief options available to help manage repayments for those who are in a position of hardship."

Asked why she hadn't contacted Inland Revenue to reach an agreement and remove the threat of arrest, the woman said she used to spend hours on the phone with them.

"I used to say, 'Please can you help me find a way to make this manageable so I can live with dignity. I'm not looking to have a Ferrari or anything and just be giving 10 cents a week, how can we make this work?'

"They were really like loan sharks, like Repo men in their approach. When they say, 'Let's work something out', what I'm saying is, 'I've heard that before, where they sound all nice and supportive about it.' But that's not how it's like in reality."

She understood many New Zealanders would not be sympathetic, and said some of her own relatives were in the same camp. However, she urged politicians and officials to find a solution for people in her position.

"I know how arrogant it is to say, 'Well, I should get to decide what is fair for me to pay back' ... but there has to be a way of making this manageable.

"I don't have a car, I don't own a house. I don't consider myself a failure, but I have never had the disposable income to pay this back."

Education Minister Chris Hipkins has said the arrest policy wouldn't have been something he would have introduced, but it would stay in place because repealing it wasn't a legislative priority for the Government.

Isabella Lenihan-Ikin, national president of the New Zealand Union of Students' Associations (NZUSA), said the arrest policy needed to be scrapped.

"The policy which allows the arrest of students at the border is a failure. The arrest of this student, and the other students who have faced arrest since 2016, are examples of the fact that these arrests are only designed to create fear within returning New Zealanders with student loans, and are ineffective at resolving the issue of paying back the loan itself.

"New Zealanders who move overseas to advance their career or travel after graduating should not be punished once they return home. Our economy and wellbeing in New Zealand benefits from people having the freedom to travel, and then bring this knowledge and experience back to New Zealand."

However, some New Zealand Herald readers have applauded the latest arrest. One said his overseas daughter owed money, but made sure she kept in touch with Inland Revenue.

"That's called responsibility, isn't it. If this woman has made no effort to pay anything - which would be the case - she is extremely irresponsible."

Student loan arrests

A hardline law change in 2014 allowed people who had defaulted on student loan repayments to be arrested at the New Zealand border. Arrests since then include:

• 3 arrests in 2016
• 1 arrest in 2017
• 2 arrests in 2018
• 2 arrests in 2019
• 1 arrest so far in 2020



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