Migrants face prolonged family separation, visa uncertainty with closed borders

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Migrant communities are calling for the government to reassess its residency requirements.

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Migrants on visas working in New Zealand fear not being able to return to New Zealand if they leave to see family, Southland Fijian Society’s president Fili Tagicakibau says. (File image) Photo: 123RF

With the border closed for the foreseeable future, migrant advocates say now is the time to look at the stringent residency requirements.

Life has changed for everyone since the pandemic, but especially the country’s migrant communities.

Some have not seen their families for more than a year and others are grieving the loss of parents, thousands of kilometres away.

When Covid-19 entered the public lexicon early last year, Pramesh Devkota had called New Zealand home for almost five years and was a year into the residency process with his partner.

The pandemic sabotaged their application.

“We applied for our residency in 2019, in January, and we waited almost two years and because of this pandemic we couldn’t get a job so we got declined,” he said.

Devkota, an organiser of Queenstown’s Nepalese community group, said he initially came to New Zealand on a student visa but, thanks to his qualifications, found a job and had been working in the hospitality sector.

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He and his wife lost their jobs, and subsequently the home they were living in, when the border closed and tourism stopped.

They had since found casual work, but their future was much less certain.

“Now we have almost five months left to finish our visa, so it’s really hard. No-one is going to sponsor us, because on the job you need to be resident so nobody hired [us],” he said.

Despite all this, Devkota counted himself lucky to still be in New Zealand, noting that about 40 percent of Queenstown’s Nepalese community had to return to Nepal.

Southland Fijian Society president Fili Tagicakibau said many in his community had been split apart by the border closure.

Ten men he knew, working as trades people in Southland, had not seen their wives or children in more than a year. They feared not being able to return to New Zealand if they left.

“All of them are married with two or three kids, none of their families are here, so they’ve been battling away since lockdown really – this time last year,” Tagicakibau said.

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Three members of the community had to grieve the loss of parents from more than 3000km away.

Hanging over many of them was their visa status.

“The unknown factor is the scary bit, that’s when it comes to mental issues of worrying about ‘what the plan is for the next few years’, ‘what’s the plan for my family?’ so, it just creates a lot of uncertainty.”

South Canterbury Filipino Association former chair Belinda Dewe said the community also had to grieve alongside someone who lost their father in the Philippines.

“Just recently one of the farmers lost his father through Covid and he didn’t go home – he couldn’t go home,” she said.

One Filipino dairy farmer in South Canterbury was back in the Philippines visiting his family for six weeks when the border closed and he had not been able to return since.

Another farmer she knew, who had called New Zealand home for the past decade, would have to leave in a few months because he no longer met the visa requirements and his employer revoked his sponsorship.

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“It’s very hard, you’ve been here for 10 years and then you have to go home to the Philippines. Philippine life is very hard, especially if you don’t have a job there and even if you do have a job, the income you are getting in the Philippines is a very small amount.”

They were calling for the government to reassess its visa and residency requirements and ease the burden on those wishing to call New Zealand home.

Immigration New Zealand has not yet responded to RNZ’s request for information.

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