24 Jul 2020

UK-based NZers in race to get home with visas set to expire

8:09 am on 24 July 2020

Potentially thousands of UK-based New Zealanders are in a race to get back to New Zealand, with their visas set to expire in the coming days.

It has proved very difficult for many New Zealanders to leave the UK with flights hard to come by since the beginning of lockdown.

Photo: AFP

The UK's Home Office granted all overseas nationals an extension to their visas until 31 July - but with that date just a week away, New Zealanders in the UK still have no idea whether it is going to be extended again.

The extension was initially granted so that those who found themselves in the country when Covid-19 started impacting flights and border closures were able to remain there.

However, instructions were that those who benefited from the visa extension "are expected to take all reasonable steps to leave the UK before this date where it is possible to do so".

That proved difficult for many New Zealanders. Flights have been difficult to come by since the beginning of the lockdown. When they did find one - and when it was within their price range - they have often been cancelled.

"The reality is that there are really not many flights," said Neha Paranjape, who has been living in London for the past two years.

"I know Air New Zealand stopped flying for the next six weeks, [and] Emirates followed suit.

"The only one I was able to find that was decent was Singapore Airlines for £1500 (NZ$2879). I know for a lot of Kiwis, we've lost our jobs, we've still been paying rent in central London. It's really hard to fork out that kind of money."

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A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in a statement they were unsure how many people were affected, but they understood many had either moved onto another visa or left the country.

"Our High Commission in the UK has raised the visa status of affected New Zealanders with the Home Office to ensure the situation has been brought to their attention.

"Any New Zealander who has no possibility of extending their visa beyond 31 July is discouraged from remaining in the UK after their visa has expired, as this may have implications for any future travel plans.

"No government-supported charter flights are under consideration."

Time now running out for many

Neha Paranjape was one of those whose visa was extended until 31 July.

"I've known of people who have had three flight cancellations, and it's just such a struggle to get back, you never actually know when you're going to get back home.

"It is really hard at the moment trying to figure out what the right thing to do is, whether you do pay £1500 to come back, but [then] you don't know whether that flight's going to go ahead."

So she is not in the UK illegally, she has decided to fly to Spain next week, before returning to the UK a week later on a tourist visa. She has to leave the country to be able to move onto that visa.

While that means she will be in the UK legally, it does mean she will not be able to earn, and will have to stay put until her booked flight in September.

That is not an option for fellow London-living New Zealander, Ximena Smith.

She was meant to be leaving the UK in late July, but her flight was cancelled three times.

"One leg of the journey got cancelled, so I was going to be stuck in Melbourne. booked a new flight from Melbourne to New Zealand, and then that got moved a day earlier, so then I couldn't make the connection.

" went through a travel agent and she booked me a new flight, and then that got cancelled. So now we're on the fourth flight actually, so hopefully that will stay the same and that's on the 2nd of August."

The problem is that her visa will expire two days before that.

She phoned the UK Home Office - twice - to see what her options are.

"Both of those people said to me that everybody calling them at the moment is in exactly the same situation, that they're coming to the end of their visa, and they can't get home, therefore they're going to be an overstayer."

The ramifications of being an overstayer may have an impact on future travel plans, she said, if she decides to try to return to the UK on another work visa.

National wants Peters to intervene

National leader Simon Bridges speaks to media during a press conference at Parliament on 21 April 2020

Photo: 2020 Getty Images

National's foreign affairs spokesperson Simon Bridges told Morning Report Foreign Minister Winston Peters needs to talk to his counterparts in the UK government to resolve the situation.

"Our government boasts the best relationship in the world with the United Kingdom - that's what they say. I don't think Foreign Minister Peters can sit this out."

If the government does not pursue the issue, they were abandoning New Zealanders in the UK and this would be "harsh and not realistic".

He said many young New Zealanders would not want to leave the UK yet, some cannot leave because of limited flights and back here there were limits on how many could be catered for in the quarantine system.

He said while MFAT had been talking to their equivalents in the UK, it could be short-circuited by the foreign minister becoming involved.

"If Mr Peters has got time to organise trips for friends to Antarctica I think he's got time and the wherewithal to intervene in this very significant matter potentially for thousands of Kiwis."

At the same time, there also needed to be an expansion of quarantine facilities in New Zealand, Bridges said.

Peters was not available for comment because he is travelling to Invercargill this morning.

'Endless loop of anxiety and uncertainty'

The Home Office representatives told Smith while they are expecting another announcement from the Home Office regarding a visa extension, they do not know what that announcement will be.

Founder of the Facebook group 'Kiwis in London', Clint Heighe, said countless numbers of people have come to him, asking for advice and assistance.

"We're seeing dozens and dozens every other day of people saying 'What's going on?', 'How do we get back?', 'What can we do?'

"A lot of people have been inundating the other official channels as well with just desperation, concern, not knowing what's going to happen next. It's just an endless loop of anxiety and uncertainty."

He said he would not be surprised if hundreds, or even thousands, of New Zealanders were affected.

Meanwhile, the actions of the New Zealand government are not going unnoticed by those half the world away.

"I feel a little bit in limbo because New Zealand's government is trying to stem the flow of New Zealanders coming home because of the quarantine facilities being at capacity," Smith said.

"At the same time so many of us are coming home because we absolutely have to, you know our visas are ending. Our hands are tied, we can't legally stay."

The government has accepted space is running out at isolation facilities.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Covid-19 All-of-Government response group said they are working with a range of agencies and partners to manage demand and supply.

"Measures to smooth the demand include the introduction of a rolling two-week quota on the number of people airlines can return to New Zealand."

But no special dispensation is being given to those who are under significant time constraints - because their visas are expiring.

Yesterday, the head of managed isolation and quarantine, Darryn Webb, said they were continuing to operate on a first-come first-served basis.

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