Passport delays: Man with serious injury stuck overseas, athlete unable to compete

3:06 pm on 9 May 2024

(file image). Photo:

A mother whose son had been in a serious workplace accident overseas was unable to fly him home because of delays in issuing passports.

And a teenage athlete cannot compete internationally while she is waiting for citizenship.

Both citizenship and passports are dealt with by Internal Affairs, which has been under pressure since a system upgrade in March.

Michelle Sheeran's 22-year-old son was rushed into intensive care in Sydney in March after glass he was replacing broke.

"It shattered and pretty much just ripped the whole inside of his arm off," she said. "It took all of his veins, arteries, tendons, the skin and everything. And he was by himself on a worksite, bleeding out, he pressed the SOS thing on his iPhone, and I got an alert and rang his boss. And his boss turned up to the worksite, and he was passed out and there was just blood everywhere.

"And then he was in emergency surgery for eight hours and then straight into ICU, and then had two more surgeries after that."

Michelle flew out to be with him, and applied for a new passport to get him home, returning to New Zealand to look after her other children. At that stage the waiting time was four weeks, which coincided with doctors' suggestions about when he would be able to fly.

"I flew over straight away to be with him, and then applied for the passport," she said. "And I waited and waited and then I got to five weeks and I started to get my son to ring them to ask what was happening and they said that it hadn't been processed yet and that the waiting time was six weeks now. We hadn't had any notification about that."

She ended up paying another $200 for an urgent passport for him. But when it arrived, she discovered from its issue date that it was the passport she had first applied for. DIA disputes that and has refused to refund her.

"I have the receipt on my credit card. So I could have had my son back here weeks ago and I was only able to go get him last weekend. It was super-stressful because he was in hospital and then when he got out - because he's a New Zealand citizen - he had no support. He couldn't work because of his injury, he still can't work. And he was pretty much just stuck in his room because of his injury until I could get back over there and bring him home."

Internal Affairs (DIA) said the waiting time for passports was now 10 weeks. It was carrying out system updates this weekend.

"DIA expected and planned for this to affect productivity and passport timeframes, but the drop has been sharper and more prolonged than expected," said a spokesperson. "This has resulted in a short-term backlog of applications and an increase in the average time it takes for a passport to be issued."

Citizenship delays

DIA also processes citizenship, including permanent residents wanting to become New Zealanders. Figures show 60 percent of decisions were taken within 10 weeks, others took up to 19 months, and one in 10 took longer. The average wait time was seven months.

For one 16-year-old sportswoman who wants to compete internationally, the prospect of a long wait was hard to take.

"She wants to represent New Zealand, to compete in a certain sport, however the organisation is unable to select her unless she gets her citizenship first," said her lawyer, Harris Gu. "However, the DIA's criteria to escalate citizenship applications like this is that applicants must provide proof that they have already been selected to compete."

He has been tracking citizenship data and said there was often no good reason why similar applications could be dealt with quickly, or could take more than a year.

Lawyer Harris Gu.

Lawyer Harris Gu. Photo: Screenshot / Queen City Law

"Applications can be approved within a week, and I've dealt with applications like that," said Gu. "Mine is as fast as about three weeks, and I just don't understand why. Because we compare two applications, almost identical situations, they're good in health, they're good in character, they have nothing to declare, they're similar ages. They are also employed, they went through tertiary education, but they just have different outcomes in terms of processing timeframes."

He believed a faulty algorithm might be to blame, and that there were not enough staff to deal with manual assessments.

The managing director of Gu's company, Queen City Law, Marcus Beveridge, was angry at what he describes as incompetence, and delays which could deter talented people from settling and investing in New Zealand.

"They're extremely high net worth, they're trying to invest substantial money here when our economy is on its knees. And one of them's pledged to make a donation, six figures, for children who have parents who are in prison. And it's taken two years for [DIA] to sort of open the file."

Internal Affairs said in a statement it was working to reduce citizenship wait times.

"Over the last month there has been an increase in the number of decisions made," said a spokesperson. "The volume of decisions made in April was 3355 compared to 2477 in March.

"The number of decisions made depends on factors such as the number of applications that are processed through automated queues and the allocation of staff between different queues.

"The Department is currently focusing resource on our oldest applications, which take longer to process. This is reflected in the volume of decisions made over the past few months."

There was no 'maximum time limit' on how long decisions can take and each application has to be considered against criteria in the Citizenship Act.

The oldest application on file was June 2015.

"Not all citizenship by grant applications are the same. While some can be assessed faster using automated checks, others might require manual intervention by a case officer. Applications requiring manual checks may take longer. Some of these non-automated checks rely on information from sources outside of New Zealand, which can cause additional delays."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs