* This story has been amended to clarify that overstayers are unable to access any publicly funded medical services.
It has been 13 years since Vijender saw his family.
"It has been tough," Vijender says. "I lost my grandfather in 2022 and I couldn't go home because of my circumstances."
Vijender, 32, came to New Zealand in 2011 as an 18-year-old student to attend a business institute in Tauranga.
The Punjab native had a valid work visa until 2017, but his life turned upside-down after his employer withdrew support for his resident visa application.
"I stayed (in New Zealand) because I hoped that I would be able to gain a visa but, unfortunately, that didn't work out," he says, speaking on condition of using a pseudonym to protect his identity.
After living in New Zealand unlawfully for seven years trying to regain legal status, Vijender has decided to return to India.
"It was not an easy decision for me, as I have lived more than a decade in this country," he says. "I've made many friends, many memories here, but it is time to move on."
He says he can no longer stay in New Zealand.
"I've fought for years to become a legal resident of this country, but it hasn't happened," he says.
Vijender has been increasingly worried about his health and mental wellbeing.
He suffers from thyroid issues and living in constant fear of being caught by the authorities has caused him endless anxiety.
As an overstayer, Vijender is unable to access any publicly funded medical services.
In addition to his health concerns, the rising cost of living and difficulties finding work have hastened his decision to return home.
Life during the pandemic was hard for Vijender.
Finding regular work was not easy during the lockdown and he avoided getting vaccinated in case authorities asked to confirm his residential status.
"Luckily, I was living in a remote area," he says. "To this day, I haven't had Covid-19."
Vijender's passport expired in 2022, further compounding his problems.
"I've started the paperwork now to get me an emergency certificate from the Indian High Commission in Wellington so I can travel again," he says.
According to the Indian High Commission's website, an emergency certificate is a one-way travel document issued to Indian nationals who do not hold valid Indian passports and need to travel back to India.
It is usually issued to individuals detained by New Zealand authorities who are to be deported back to India as well as Indian nationals who wish to travel to India in an emergency. Those who require it must apply online at the Indian High Commission's website.
The applicant is also expected to attend an interview with an officer from the High Commission and should submit a copy of the previous Indian passport, five recent passport-size photographs, a one-way travel itinerary and pay $24 online.
"I've bought my tickets and am waiting for my emergency certificate interview," Vijender says.
Labour's election promise
Just before the 2023 general election, the Labour Party announced a one-off amnesty programme for overstayers. However, the party's hefty election loss in October scotched any hope of a reprieve.
"It has deeply affected me," Vijender says. "It gave hope to a lot of people like me."
Vijender questioned the timing of Labour's pre-election announcement, wondering why it didn't introduce such a policy when it held a clear majority government.
The National Party, which managed to form a coalition with ACT and New Zealand First after the election, has ruled out an amnesty for overstayers.
National's election victory left Vijender with little choice but to return to India, particularly as the costs associated with visa applications have grown considerably in recent years.
"(Immigration) policies have changed drastically and quite frequently in the past six years, and it has become difficult for people like me to afford the cost of these applications," he says.
Vijender believes he has spent more than $30,000 over the past seven years on visa-related expenses.
Sonny Lam, an immigration lawyer at Queen City Law, says overstayers typically leave the country after multiple failed attempts at securing a visa.
"If you don't have a valid visa, then you have a general obligation to leave the country," Lam says.
According to Lam, overstayers leaving New Zealand for their home countries don't need to go through any formal processes at the airport upon departure.
Neither Immigration New Zealand nor Customs would prevent an overstayer from leaving if they have overstayed their visa, he says.
But "if an individual is deported, then there might be costs incurred by the government in deporting that person and that person would have to pay back those costs before they can travel back to New Zealand," he says.
Lam says that anyone deported from New Zealand will find it hard to return.
"It's based on risk assessment and once you've overstayed, there is a chance the officials could decline your visa application," Lam says.
Meanwhile, Vijender has made peace with his decision to leave and is excited about the trip home.
"It has been 13 years since I saw my parents and siblings," he says. "(My siblings) have moved out from my parents' house and have kids of their own."
He is nervous about restarting his life in India but remains hopeful about his future.
"I will miss this beautiful country but I'm optimistic about my life," he says. "I can finally be free."