19 Sep 2020

Border closure six months on: History-making and life-changing

6:20 am on 19 September 2020

Today marks six months since New Zealand's border closed for the first time in its history.

A deserted baggage claim area at Auckland Airport's international terminal during the Covid-19 alert level 3 lockdown on 7 May 2020.

A deserted baggage claim area at Auckland Airport's international terminal during alert level 3. Photo: Brett Phibbs / PhibbsVisuals

Packed international airports with heaving check-in desks became deserted within days - and car parks, shops and corridors now lie almost empty.

Travellers looking at the Auckland Airport departure board today will see only nine flights out of the country.

Arrivals are on seven planes - three from Australia, and one each from Los Angeles, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Rarotonga.

No-one can enter the international terminal without a ticket - no joyful reunions with returning friends and relatives. Passengers leaving the country sit in a transit lounge until their flight is called and they are taken to the plane by bus.

While Christchurch and Wellington airports are getting busier with domestic flights, international flights have all but stopped.

On one day in May, for the first time since international travel took off, New Zealand returned to the remote islands they once were - no-one left or entered the country.

History-making border closure

On 19 March, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the border would be closing to non-New Zealand residents and citizens from midnight that night.

For New Zealand, closing the border was history-making and for many it was life-changing.

New Zealanders who rushed to buy tickets told of cancelled flights and passengers sobbing in airport waiting areas.

Passengers arriving at Auckland Airport

Passengers arriving at Auckland Airport a few days before the country's border was closed on 19 March. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

RNZ reporter Chen Liu went to Auckland Airport the following morning as the exhausted travellers who had got tickets arrived.

"There were visitors cutting their trips in New Zealand short to get out of the country because of the uncertainty coming with the border announcement," she said.

"There were also New Zealanders coming back home before the planned date as other countries were also announcing border closures. One girl was on a working holiday visa in Canada and her parents flew out to the US to meet her and go for a trip to Canada. But they couldn't go any further than America because the border was closed to foreigners, so the whole family had to return to New Zealand."

They were met by health officials who interviewed them to make sure they would keep to the self-isolation rules.

Auckland International Airport

A regular busy day at Auckland Airport in pre-Covid times. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Passenger numbers down 97%

In February this year 562,076 people arrived and 518,275 departed New Zealand.

In the six months from 19 March to 19 September, only a fraction of those numbers have travelled. Auckland Airport says there have been about 150,000 passengers flying on 6400 international flights. The number of flights are down nearly 80 percent on the same six-month period last year and passengers down 97 percent.

In April, came the first day when no-one arrived in the country with 6385 arrivals during the month and 31,896 departures. Daily numbers bounced around from single digit arrivals to 2000 departures.

A deserted international arrival hall, at Auckland Airport during the Covid-19 level 3 lockdown, Auckland on 7 May  2020.

On one day in May, no-one left or entered the country. Photo: Brett Phibbs / PhibbsVisuals

On 25 May, came a new first - no-one left or arrived in New Zealand on that day. More were leaving (10,111) and fewer arriving (5577) that month, some on repatriation flights arranged by their governments and ours.

By June, that had stepped up to 14,864 leaving and 9162 arriving and by July on most days there were a few hundred people headed in both directions - arrivals were about the same but departures had increased to 18,195.

A deserted international arrival area at Auckland Airport while the city was in level 3 lockdown in May.

An empty international arrival area at Auckland Airport in May. Photo: Brett Phibbs / PhibbsVisuals

Those left on the wrong side of borders

People caught in the wrong country when borders closed - and flight connections became scarce - had horror stories. Some needed repatriation flights and some got them.

And then there were those stranded in New Zealand - having been on holiday or lost their job, some unable to find flights, others not able to afford them.

Other stories came from visa holders who were on holiday or visiting family when the border closed, some from partners or parents with loved ones locked out overseas.

The panic of rushing to buy tickets or to get to the airport in March quickly turned to dismay and depression.

Six months on, after some exemptions to the border restrictions for work and humanitarian reasons, tales of lives shattered by the ongoing border closure still abound.

Zee Pathan and her family

Zee Pathan, her husband Muz Pathan and their six-year-old daughter Zaaha Pathan. Photo: Supplied

District health board administrator Zee Pathan, 36, was in India visiting her sick mother with her husband Muz and six-year-old daughter Zaaha.

"These six months have been the most stressful period of my life," she said this week.

"I have lost track of the number of rejections I have received from INZ.

"Zaaha is turning seven next month and her only wish is to celebrate her birthday with her school friends. Her schooling has been suffering as all schools are shut here in India and online education is not possible as schools are not taking any new enrolments.

"Covid is spreading like wildfire and I feel so so unsafe. I always thought that all this will be solved in a few months' time but this seems to be never ending."

One of many applications she made for an exemption was approved by a case officer, only to be rejected by a senior manager. She does not qualify for the latest extension to foreigners allowed to pass through the border - because she is on a post-study work visa.

"Last week the immigration minister did announce some relief to few visa holders who have essential skills and work to residence visa. The criteria states that the person needs to still have his job and should have dependent children who were previously going to New Zealand schools. I meet both these criteria but my visa category does not match. I fail to understand why this discrimination - we have earned this visa by investing thousands of dollars for our education. We have contributed in a dual manner by paying the taxes as well.

"At least let those people come back who still have their jobs intact. Canterbury DHB has been very supportive and extended my unpaid leave until January but if I fail to return till that time then my contract will be terminated. With regards to my house I am paying partial rent to my landlord and he has been very cooperative to wait till I come back. All my personal belongings, especially my education certificates, are with a close friend."

Some of her friends were able to return as they had work to residence visas, or partners in New Zealand.

For her, the uncertainty and pain were unbearable.

"But I am surviving just for my daughter," she said. "I still haven't lost hope and will continue to fight."

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