19 Nov 2020

Graduate international students locked out of New Zealand plead for exemption

6:30 pm on 19 November 2020

Recent graduates who spent thousands on their education in New Zealand are questioning why they were left out of a border exemption to get them back to their homes and jobs.

A protest in Delhi, India against New Zealand's immigration was attended by about 150 people.

A protest in Delhi, India against New Zealand's immigration was attended by about 150 people. Photo: Supplied

After months of being locked out of New Zealand, many say they feel abandoned by the government after years of living here and paying taxes.

Protests have been held around India, including 150 people at a demonstration in Delhi this week bearing banners of #Migrantlivesmatter, and another is planned for Monday.

In September, the government announced that immigrants holding work-to-residence, essential skills or entrepreneur visas would be allowed to travel to New Zealand.

Post-study work visa holders did not make the list however, and for many that is hard to take after the amount of time and money they invested in the country.

Sarith Senadheera is one of those stranded, still doing his IT job remotely from Sri Lanka for his New Zealand employer.

"Now for me and my partner we've just got our clothes, everything else is in New Zealand - we're still paying the rent for our apartment, I still pay the taxes in New Zealand, we are paying all the other bills, insurances, nothing stops, but we're stuck here for nine months.

"If I am flying out from Sri Lanka, then 72 hours before the flight I have to take the Covid-19 test and it should be negative before I board onto a flight. And I get a negative result, there's a 1 percent chance there that I can get the virus in the flight and then I get into the isolation too."

He had his boarding pass when the border closure came into force. Most immigrants accepted the policy to begin with, but were now wanting certainty about when - and if - they could return.

Prospects bleak - Lawyer

Immigration lawyer Alastair McClymont said he thought the prospects of post-study work visa holders being allowed back in was low.

"I think the government are going to say that the work visa holders that are going to come back in should be for essential workers where there is a shortage of New Zealanders for a position and for those filling critical jobs. Whereas an open work visa holder who is a graduate doesn't necessarily fit into either of those categories, they could be doing any type of job which is relevant to their qualification.

"Secondly, I think that the government would likely say that these people paid only for a New Zealand qualification - they weren't paying for the work rights and the pathway to residency - despite the fact that international education as marketed overseas in countries like India and China as a package. The government are involved in marketing study work rights and a potential pathway to residency but I doubt that the government will acknowledge that's the case."

The government had prioritised essential skills visas over open visas such as the post-study workers, who do not have a specified employer, he said.

'We've been waiting for compassion

Nidhi Kaushal, who was also stuck overseas, said that was galling when it was the government that changed the previous employer-specific visas to address concerns over potential exploitation if immigrants were tied to a single workplace.

Belen Macchiavello and Hardeep Singh with their baby daughter Amy.

Belen Macchiavello and Hardeep Singh with their baby daughter Amy. Photo: Supplied

"People are upset about why is there discrimination between this in respect of the visa categories," she said. "Everyone should be allowed in, at least given a fair chance to come back to the country, at least to sort out our affairs. I received news yesterday that my car has been vandalised - I'm still responsible for it.

"We've just been waiting and waiting and waiting for some consideration and some compassion."

She was on 10 days' leave from her job at a telecoms company to see her seriously-ill father in hospital when the border closed, and never imagined 10 days could spell the end of her five years in New Zealand.

"We have lost our sleep, our future, our jobs, our savings, we are approximately 10,000 people stuck across the world and we have valid and legal rights to be in the country. We are still paying our expenses for nine months.

"We have all waited patiently, exhausted all our savings and now I hate to say but we all find ourselves where we all started."

Many of those on post-study work visas had used everything they had to pay for their studies, she said.

Among other immigrants who have contacted RNZ was lifeguard team leader at Hamilton pools Rishabh Sharma, who was travelling to see his dying grandmother when the border announcement was made.

"I was meant to fly back on 20 March and the lockdown happened on 19 March. I tried but couldn't arrange for an early flight back home to New Zealand."

Belen Macchiavello, from Argentina, had lived in New Zealand for six years, and she and her husband married in New Zealand in February. Their one-year-old daughter Amy was born here and they were in Argentina for a Catholic marriage ceremony when the border closed. Her husband had to fly to India as his visitor visa in Argentina was about to expire, and they have been apart ever since.

"We have our home, jobs, our baby's stuff, our cars - everything is in New Zealand," she said. "We are now literally on the other side of the world from each other and our home is in New Zealand, waiting for us to come back and get together again.

'Heart-breaking and very stressful'

"It is heartbreaking and very stressful. We are not New Zealand residents, but we are ordinary residents. We live there and we want our life back."

Urvi Khurana's job at Westpac had been kept open since March - that ended this week. "I have lived in NZ for three-and-a-half years. I came to India as one of my family members was in a critical situation and I was flying back on 23 March. Hearing of the border closure, I tried to book a flight but didn't get any luck in a day."

Not all are on post-study work visas.

Gurinder Maan worked in a Southland supermarket and her husband was a dairy farm manager in Dipton. He resigned from his position before going on holiday with his wife and five-year-old son and was due to start his new job on 1 June.

His former employer has given him his job back, but he does not qualify for an exemption because he did not keep the same job since the border closed.

"He is on an employer-based work visa which is valid until 1st July 2021," said Maan. "We have spent seven years of our lives in New Zealand, [we've] got everything we own back in New Zealand, even all our personal belongings and documents."

Although on an essential skills visa and still working for a New Zealand company, Yu Ting Mak did not fulfil the criteria of living in the country for more than two years when the Government announced the easing of border restrictions two months ago.

"The lockdown announcement was made when we were literally on the plane, we only found out in transit," he said. "Our decision to leave when Covid was spreading was because we needed to collect some important documents required for our residency application as we had just received the invitation to apply for residency. We thought it would be best to get the residency application sorted as soon as possible, all the more before the pandemic got worse."

Not a priority - Minister

Immigration minister Kris Faafoi said in a statement the post-graduate study work visa group had not been identified as a priority under current criteria for border exceptions.

"The government is constantly reviewing border settings to ensure we balance the need to prevent the spread of Covid while giving as much support as we can to people and industries and ensuring employment opportunities are there for New Zealanders who have lost jobs due to Covid-19."

September's border exceptions were deliberately kept narrow because of managed isolation constraints, including the increase that came with New Zealanders wanting to return for Christmas, he said.

"When making decisions on border exceptions, the government balances the needs of many groups against the pressure any arrivals create on the managed isolation and quarantine system.

"When considering exceptions for people who lived in New Zealand, but were overseas when the border closed, the priority has been to enable those with strong connections to New Zealand to return.

"Other factors the government takes into account include humanitarian reasons, reuniting families, economic needs, and ensuring sufficient skills, experience and talents are available."

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