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'It's been really hard' - Family forced apart due to closed borders struggling with 11-month separation

Families spending Christmas apart because of closed borders say they need hope of being reunited in the New Year.

Vanita Sehgal, husband Rajeev Seghal and their daughter Mehak. Source: rnz.co.nz

By Gill Bonnett of rnz.co.nz

Border exemptions have been allowed for people who do not have New Zealand residence or citizenship, but who have strong humanitarian reasons to be in the country.

But the criteria are tight - Immigration New Zealand (INZ) has accepted 1700 of 16,000 people who applied.

Among those affected are real-estate account manager Vanita Sehgal whose husband, Rajeev Seghal, was in India when his father died, and the border closed as he prepared to return home.

Vanita Sehgal's daughter Mehak (front) has been suffering as a result of the family being separated. Source: rnz.co.nz

She said her 15-year-old daughter Mehak was struggling with the 11-month separation.

"Lately, she has started visiting the school counsellor because every evening when we are back it's like dinnertime she really, really misses the whole family being together just the three of us, there's always one person missing.

"She's a good child she's very kind and she's very good and studies and sports. But even if she wins some awards or accolades, she would collect and then she would cry the whole day because she knows that her Dad is not around and he could not come to attend that function.

"We went to the University of Auckland where she got first in a German exam she took. By taking the award she was okay, but later on while getting her back home, the whole way she was just crying, crying, crying. She was like 'Mum, I wish that Dad was here, Mum, I wish that Dad was here'.

"It's been really hard for both of us this year. It was the first time in 18 years from the time we got married that he was not standing next to me for Diwali, and now obviously for Christmas."

A low point came during lockdown when Vanita Sehgal had lost her job and had to accept food parcels from a community group in Takanini.

She was taken back on, but the stress was immense as her husband had left his job in India ahead of his flight booked for April. She had low blood pressure and was fainting, worrying about how things were going to work out.

Rajeev Sehgal has a partnership work visa which is valid until 2023.

"I don't sleep here in the night till 2.30am, writing to Immigration Minister Hon Kris Faafoi and applying for critical travel with immigration, but there is no ray of hope," he said.

"I am awake till the time my wife and daughter reach the office and school as I always worry for them.

"It clearly says in the critical immigration travel site that partners of work visa holder and parents of domestic student can also apply for critical travel, and I have applied for it many times but it is always rejected.

"We all three are very sensitive, my wife is coping with financials on her own for all three of us at the moment."

INZ said in a statement said while border restrictions do not apply to partners of residents and citizens, Rajeev Sehgal's wife is on a temporary post-study work visa.

"All individual requests for an exception to border restrictions are considered against the criteria as set out in immigration instructions," said a spokesman in a statement.

"While INZ is empathetic to the situation individuals like Mr Sehgal find themselves in, INZ has no ability to apply discretion when considering requests for border exceptions.

"In September and November, Mr Sehgal requested a border exception to current border restrictions under humanitarian criteria. However, he was not considered to meet the high bar required to be granted an exception under this criteria and both requests were declined."

Factors officials took into account included applicants' connections to New Zealand and to where they are living, and what impact not granting a visa would have.

"While is it not possible to state the exact number of requests for an exception on humanitarian grounds specifically to reunite family members, a total of 16,364 people have been included in Expressions of Interest on humanitarian grounds. Of this number, 1716 people have been invited to make an application."

One affected woman from South Africa, who asked not to be named, said the length of time people had now been apart had made families desperate.

"From the South African side we have a group of about 800 people who are stuck offshore, that's only three flights and we would have solved that humanitarian crisis. INZ will not assist these families.

"The only border exception option for most of these families fall under the humanitarian category and INZ does not feel that a parent that has been separated from their kid or a spouse that has been separated from their loved one is humanitarian enough. Most of these children have had to start seeing a psychologist for their separation anxiety."