6 Apr 2021

Separated migrant families protest at Parliament urging reunification

9:54 pm on 6 April 2021

A group of migrants took to the steps of Parliament today calling on the government to allow their families to enter the country.

Migrant family protest outside Parliament.

Many migrants say the toll of separation on their mental health has been disastrous. Photo: RNZ / Harry Lock

Many have had requests for border exemptions turned down on numerous occasions.

The government said it was because the borders were closed - all the while letting in sports teams and performers like The Wiggles.

"If you are the Queen of England, or if you are the president of the United States, or even if you are sweeping the grounds of the Parliament, nobody wants to be left behind without their family," Justin Sobion, one of the protest's organisers, said.

"It's a common issue, it affects every single person."

Justin Sobion outside Parliament

Justin Sobion. Photo: RNZ / Harry Lock

A variety of countries were represented by the protesters including Iran, the West Indies and South Africa.

About 50 people stood outside Parliament and others joined in from abroad via Zoom.

For these wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, it has been a year of separation.

"This is an issue that has been swept under the carpet, it has been silenced," Sobion said.

He has been separated from his Swiss national wife for more than a year, but now after multiple requests and the help of an immigration adviser she has been granted an exemption and is in MIQ.

How is it affecting the individuals?

Few others have had success. Many said the toll on their mental health had been disastrous: one daughter was refusing to speak to her father on FaceTime while he was in New Zealand.

Some couples said they had considered separating.

Migrant family protest outside Parliament

Photo: RNZ / Harry Lock

New Zealand citizen Sameera Bandara married his wife in his birth country of Sri Lanka in December 2019.

They applied for her visa in February 2020 but a lack of response is taking a toll on Sameera.

"It really impacted on me very stressfully. I go to my GP because I can't sleep, I've got a very stressful life.

"Imagine - as a full-time solo parent without any family in New Zealand, I'm on sleeping pills every night to have a good sleep."

Sharareh Khojasteh has lived in New Zealand for three years since coming from Iran as a refugee. Her husband - her 10-year-old son's step-father - is still there.

"So many difficulties. For example, last year my father passed away. I was ... suffering, it was shocking. When my husband [is] with me, he can support my emotions."

Henco de Beer outside Parliament

Henco de Beer. Photo: RNZ / Harry Lock

Henco de Beer arrived in New Zealand from South Africa four days after his son was born. His wife and two children were due to fly out on 20 March 2020. The borders closed the day before.

Since then, he has missed his son's first birthday, his daughter's sixth birthday, and two wedding anniversaries.

"Besides the birthdays and the milestones, it's that every other day in between. To say, 'good night', and 'don't worry, I'll see you soon', for 450 days, it's mind-boggling it had to come to that point."

The protesters gathered on the lawn in front of Parliament, sharing their stories, and calling on the government to come up with a plan to reunify them with their families.

They also want an urgent select committee inquiry into the migrant issues caused by Covid-19.

A letter - written to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins, and Minister for Diversity, Inclusion and Ethnic Communities Priyanca Radhakrishnan - was accepted by Green MP Ricardo March.

The letter described the situation as "a critical, humanitarian issue that needs urgent resolution".

It detailed statistics which they argued showed many families could have been allowed to return under the current numbers and capacity at managed isolation and quarantine facilities.

The letter called for the government to allow all their families back into the country within six months.

Immigration minister asks for 'a little bit of patience'

A number of MPs from the Green Party, ACT and National turned out to speak with and support those there.

National immigration spokesperson Erica Stanford addressed the crowd.

"This unfolding crisis in New Zealand is a stain on our society, and it's an affront to the mantra of kindness that is being promulgated by the prime minister.

"The fact that you haven't seen your children and your partners in a year is abhorrent, with no light at the end of the tunnel."

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi said the border had "closed for good reason".

"There's managed isolation capacity to factor in there. I'm asking them for a little bit of patience. We are considering what we can do for them. But I'm also mindful of what the impact that has on New Zealanders who might want to come home."

Migrant family protest outside Parliament in June 2021

Migrant family protest outside Parliament in June 2021 Photo: RNZ / Harry Lock

Faafoi and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said work allowing the families to be reunited is continuing.

Immigration adviser Katy Armstrong, who has been advocating for migrants, said they had been patient for long enough.

"They have just consistently said 'sorry, the border's closed'. But the border's not closed.

"We know The Wiggles and the other entertainers have come in. So it's not that it's closed, it's just the government doesn't seem to want these people in."

Announcing the trans-Tasman bubble this afternoon, Ardern said the work allowing families to reconnect continued.

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