An Australian woman says her attempt to get an exemption to the New Zealand Covid-19 travel ban so she could visit her dying mother has left her feeling distraught and disrespected.
The Sydney resident applied for the exemption on humanitarian grounds on April 1, but it wasn't approved until April 16 by which time her mother had died.
Immigration New Zealand (INZ) said it could not comment on specifics of the woman's case without a privacy waiver, but that her application appeared to have been made on the first day of the border exemptions process being put in place and that may have contributed to the delay.
A privacy waiver was not provided to RNZ by the individual.
However, it has said that if the situation was as the woman described then "this has been a truly terrible experience for the individual and INZ apologises for that".
'Mum had really entered into the last phase of Parkinson's disease
The woman moved to New South Wales about 40 years ago while the rest of her family remained in New Zealand.
Now an Australian citizen, she said she got word her mother was in a bad way in late March.
"I received a call from my brother to tell me that he had just gone with my father and taken my mum to her GP. The GP had confirmed that mum had really entered into the last phase of Parkinson's and didn't have long to live."
Desperate to get to New Zealand to see her mother before she died, and support her brother and 90-year-old father, the woman applied for an exemption to the travel ban on 1 April via the Immigration New Zealand website.
Aware she would also have to go into quarantine in New Zealand, the woman was buoyed when she immediately got back an email saying that the application had been received and also noted its urgency.
The email went on to say the department was very busy, but it aimed to respond in two working days, although it could take longer.
After hearing nothing for several days, she started working the Immigration phones on 6 April and most days thereafter.
They could tell her the application had been received and assigned a case number but did not appear to be progressing.
"That was in the days leading up to Easter and it was pretty evident that if I didn't get to New Zealand in the next few days then I wasn't going to get there in time to see my mother.
"So, Easter was pretty grim because I didn't get any response and on the Tuesday morning after Easter I got a call to say mum had passed away so the next couple of days were quite difficult."
The woman finally got an email response informing her application for an exemption to the travel ban had been approved on the Friday after Easter.
"Quite a cheery sounding email. Again the impression I'm left with is that it was a standard email. I certainly from the email didn't have the impression that they had looked at the information I'd already provided to them which detailed why I was making an application."
The email said she had a month to apply for a visitor visa which would have to be used within a month of being issued. It offered no advice on how long that visa would be valid for.
The woman believed the lack of action, and compassion, from Immigration New Zealand was appalling.
"I think it's really disrespectful. It's disrespectful to me and my family in New Zealand as they're impacted as well.
"My father's grieving. I can't be with him. It's put quite a bit of pressure on my brother who's in his bubble trying to look after his family and look after Dad.
The woman said when she spoke to her father he was trying to remain upbeat, but she was feeling guilty about not being there for him.
"He's now in a situation where he sees no-one from one day to the next. He finds himself in a situation where he's totally alone and it just breaks my heart that I can't be there to be with him."
- If you have symptoms of the coronavirus, call the NZ Covid-19 Healthline on 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs) or call your GP
A call for change
The woman, who said she had been too upset to follow through on the application for a visitor visa yet, said she wanted changes made at Immigration New Zealand so that no one applying for entry into the country on humanitarian grounds had to experience what she and her family had to go through.
Immigration New Zealand's general manager of border and visa operations, Nicola Hogg, said INZ was unable to comment on the specific circumstances of this case: "Without knowing who the individual is and looking into the specific case, INZ is unable to confirm how long it took to process this request."
Hogg said the woman's request appeared to have been lodged on the first day of the border exemptions process being put in place.
"The process required new immigration instructions, new procedures to be established and there were a significant number of requests coming in."
Hogg said in the first week of the exemption process - known as an exception process at INZ - being in place, it received 2093 requests from 31 March - 6 April.
"On average, processing times for requests received on April 1 took three working days to process. However INZ acknowledges that this specific request appears to have taken longer than that.
"This is an unfortunate situation but the processing time in this particular case is not reflective of all requests. INZ is currently processing requests for an exception to the border restrictions within two working days."
Since the exemptions process was put in place, INZ has received more than 6700 applications.
Of those, about 6680 have been decided and only around 1400 requests have resulted in an "Invitation to Apply" for a visitor visa being issued.
Hogg said the bar for being granted an exception to the border restrictions was set high to help stop the spread of Covid-19 and protect the health of people already in New Zealand.
INZ had no ability to apply discretion to the strict settings in place, she said.
Who can apply for an border exception?
The New Zealand border is currently closed to all but New Zealand citizens and residents. There are a limited number of exceptions for other travellers who should seek approval from Immigration New Zealand before travelling.
This includes partners, dependent children (aged 24 years and under) and legal guardians of New Zealand citizens and residents, and Australian citizens and permanent residents who normally live in New Zealand.
Exceptions may also be granted where people have a critical purpose for travel to New Zealand, including:
- Essential health workers
- Other essential workers who are specifically agreed to by the New Zealand Government
- Samoan and Tongan citizens making essential travel
- New Zealand-based partners and dependent children (aged 19 years and under) of a work or student visa holder who is in New Zealand
- Critical humanitarian reasons
The border exception/exemption process has two steps.
Individuals who think they may be eligible for an exception/exemption can make a request via the INZ website.
If an individual's circumstances are considered exceptional they will then be invited to apply for a visitor visa, or to vary their existing visa to allow them to travel.