8 Feb 2022

Separated families 'tremendously suffering' with phased reopening of borders

8:08 pm on 8 February 2022

Immigration New Zealand has today announced when migrant workers and international students will be able to leave the country and return.

Johannes Nijhuis with his wife Eli and their two children, 8-year-old Alkino and 3-year-old Eliano.

Johannes Nijhuis with his wife Eli and their two children, 8-year-old Alkino and 3-year-old Eliano. Photo: Supplied

Last week's border announcement left temporary workers in the dark about when they could visit overseas family without being locked out by Covid-19 restrictions.

The government has now decided that people with work and student visas will be able to travel abroad, and arrive back under step three of the border strategy in April.

But advocates said other border decisions which affected split families were dismaying.

Migrants have questioned why tourists and working holidaymakers will arrive through New Zealand's reopening borders, ahead of families they last saw more than two years ago.

Last week, the government said most travel would resume by July, but partners and children needing visas would have to wait until October.

Immigration New Zealand (INZ) said the staging was because visas were 'resource-intensive', and visa processing could not be opened fully in the next eight months in part because INZ was focused on processing the one-off residence visa (RV21) for an estimated 165,000 people.

Dutch migrant Johannes Nijhuis arrived in January 2020 and his Indonesian wife Eli and two children, Alkino, 8, and Eliano, 3, were due to join him six months later.

"It has been a very difficult time for us, especially for my wife because she has to raise our children alone. She's often quite emotional about the whole situation and even quite desperate and it also makes me very emotional to see my wife and children suffer like this," Nijhuis said.

"Especially when my children ask me when they can come to New Zealand or when they can meet with me again, and they ask me to play with them, and I just can't go home because I can't enter New Zealand again."

Nijhuis, a builder, said they had been rejected for border exemptions and were still not clear when they would be together again. They are eligible to apply for the one-off residence visa next month, but uncertainty over timing hangs over them.

"The problem is that thousands of people will apply for this visa at the beginning of March and the processing times will be months and months. So we just don't know when they will be able to process our visa and when I can get my family in," Nijhuis said.

Johannes Nijhuis' two children, 8-year-old Alkino and 3-year-old Eliano.

Johannes Nijhuis says the border separation has taken an emotional toll on his family. (pictured are his two children, 8-year-old Alkino and 3-year-old Eliano) Photo: Supplied

Residence priority could be given to split families, he said.

"The problem lies probably in that all the people that are applying for the RV21 visa, not all of them are still overseas or their families are still overseas. So I have some Dutch friends of mine, they are already here with their whole family. And they even said to me 'we would be happy with immigration processing your visa application first, because you have been separated from your family for such a long time already'.

"And I think that is the right thing to do. You first have to look at what is the right thing and the kind thing to do for families right now. Because these families have been separated for two years, some people even for three years already, and they're just tremendously suffering."

Health system the priority - INZ

INZ said it had to take visa processing timeframes and self-isolation requirements into account when considering its decision.

"The phasing of arrival volumes is intended to help manage the impact reopening may have on our health system and to manage the impact on our health system capacity while there is an Omicron outbreak," said immigration policy manager Ruth Isaac.

"The government doesn't want to scale up large volumes of foreign travellers from overseas until new systems are in place for checking vaccination and pre-departure test requirements," Isaac said.

"The government has also taken into consideration impacts on visa processing timeframes and how the self-isolation requirement will impact peoples' decision to travel to New Zealand.

"Full reopening of all visa categories is not feasible for Immigration New Zealand before October due in part to the government's decision to prioritise processing of the special 2021 Resident Visa, which is a significant undertaking and will benefit a large number of workers and their families in New Zealand."

Under step two of the border reopening plan, up to 50,000 working holidaymakers will arrive from 13 March.

"The reintroduction of the Working Holiday Schemes will be phased over the coming months," Isaac said.

"Decisions are currently being made on what this phasing will look like and more information will be made available soon.

"Processing working holiday visas is less resource intensive than some other visa categories. Working holidaymakers are also a valuable source of labour for employers, particularly in sectors such as hospitality and agriculture. Likewise, visa-waiver travel is less resource intensive than visitor visas and most other visa categories."

Lawyer Cynthia Garton, an organiser of the Reunite Families group, said it was not acceptable to blame it on resources at this stage.

Immigrant adviser and advocate Katy Armstrong agreed.

"The argument about resources for visa-free versus non is unsatisfactory. These families have been split for two and a a half years," Armstrong said.

"They've prioritised RV21 which captures in a windfall way many that never even came to New Zealand thinking they could get residence, and now those are prioritised over those that came with a plan to migrate as a family who have suffered this split.

"Currently sitting in a pile are hundreds of partners split from Kiwis whose applications have been assessed as genuine and credible but where living together criteria are not met. They each got a letter saying their general visitor visa would be issued on the border opening.

"There is no resourcing required to issue those visas. Again, a tourist comes in before they can."

Migrant advocate Anna O'Toole said the border decisions around the phased opening priorities were disappointing.

"The entire phased reopening seems very reactive and only benefits the government rather than tackling the issues that migrants in New Zealand are currently facing, such as split families.

"New Zealand wants to attract skilled migrants and implements a new work visa that focuses on high skilled/paid workers but invites working holiday visa holders in at the same time.

"As little work as possible for them but with the highest return, cheap labour and tourist dollars from visa waiver countries."

Migrant healthcare and supermarket workers' visas extended

Meanwhile, the government is extending flexible visa conditions for migrants working in healthcare and supermarkets.

The changes will last until January next year in areas operating under Covid-19 red or orange traffic light restrictions.

Students can work more than their usual maximum of 20 hours a week in health jobs, including vaccinations and testing.

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