Migrant families stranded overseas despite homes, jobs back in New Zealand

For months, they've been given glimmers of hope, told to fill in online applications for exemptions to the closed border.

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Many of those on temporary visas are families working towards residency having run businesses in New Zealand for years. Source: Fair Go

But now migrants with work visas, who had ill-timed trips overseas, have been given devastating news by Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway.

"There is no plan at this stage to bring people on temporary visas back to New Zealand in large numbers,” he told Fair Go.

The term "temporary visas" makes it sound like these people are just passing through. But many are families who are working towards residency, whose lives are already fully embedded in New Zealand. Like the Badenhorst family who live, work and study in Northern Otago.

Carla and Dewald have run a dairy farm there for four years and help out with community activities whenever they can. Their oldest, Adriaan, is at high school and an enthusiastic member of the Air Cadets.

Their younger two, Carlo and Marieke, go to Maheno Primary/Intermediate School, and according to the principal are great students, who have lots of friends, and take part in just about every activity on offer. They live there, they pay bills there, they have pets there.

But, the family are stuck in South Africa. They were on a two-week dash back to renew passports as the borders were closed to anyone other than New Zealand citizens and residents or those with an exemption.

No-one disagrees that border control is vital, but these people are no greater health risk than anyone else returning.

Immigration NZ flooded with applications requesting exceptions at the border

They're more than willing to go into quarantine, as getting back to their jobs and lives is their number one priority. It's also clear that they're desperately needed by the dairy industry, especially as calving season gets underway.

"The forty or fifty workers we want back in are highly skilled ... and you can't replace people like that,” Chris Lewis from Federated Farmers said.

Mr Lewis is glad the Government is investing in training up Kiwis who need new jobs, but says this will only meet the need at the lower end of the skill spectrum, adding that for jobs like Carla and Dewald's "we require four, five, six years’ experience and that's something you can't manufacture on your CV".

The dairy industry is one of our biggest export earners and so there's intense frustration when "you see movie stars and America's Cup sailors allowed in ... and yet we can't get our staff back in".

The Badenhorsts are finding it extremely tough living in limbo. They were kindly put up by their brother-in-law in a backpackers shed at the back of his property, but that arrangement could only last so long, so they then moved to stay with elderly parents.

The parents are surviving on a basic pension which doesn't stretch to feeding five extra mouths. The trouble is Carla and Dewald have no income, as their boss can't afford to keep paying them, while they're still paying their bills in New Zealand and having to fork out for accommodation for their cats while away. There are times when Carla says they feel utterly at a loss to know what to do.

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With no income and new work hard to find, it’s a desperate situation for many. Source: 1 NEWS

"There've been nights that we cry because we don't know what's going to happen next or when we're going home or what to tell the kids.”

Immigration specialist Katy Armstrong from the company Into NZ is working for free to help the Badenhorsts and many others who were caught out overseas at this critical time.

She's disappointed the Government isn't recognising their commitment to these people that have been contributing to the New Zealand economy for years. She says their Essential Work Visas should count for more adding that "they've been given that visa by the Government and now it's not worth the paper that it's written on seemingly".

Like others, the Badenhorsts have been making applications for an exemption online.

Some exemptions are to allow family members to be reunited, others like the Badenhorsts are based on humanitarian reasons. Carla explains how they've put in five applications now, each time adding more information, but each time getting declined, "it's a generic email stating you've been unsuccessful and you have no right to appeal".

So is it worth them applying? Are their chances better now that the capacity for isolation beds has been increased to 7000? They are desperate for answers but feel they're being fobbed off, "we have been given no indication by Immigration New Zealand or by the Prime Minister telling us when we can return. For the last three months, we've just heard the words 'we are working on it'".

So Fair Go approached the Immigration Minister to try to get some certainty. At first, it was sounding positive, "we're enthusiastic about creating opportunities for people travelling to New Zealand, but we have to do it safely".

When pressed further about giving some kind of timeline given it's been over three months now, he added "we've had to prioritise other decision making... but it's something we are working on it right now".

Yes, there's that phrase again "we're working on it". It's become a source of intense frustration to families as it makes it impossible to plan ahead, so we pressed him again and were told that some kind of sequencing of migrants to come back would be completed "very soon".

But when we asked for absolute clarity on what "very soon" meant, the minister admitted there was "no real plan to bring these people back in large numbers" and that even once a plan for sequencing was in place, "it's fair to say it would still be months before these people start to return".

It appears the only option left for families like the Badenhorsts is to keep applying for a humanitarian exemption based on the fact they have no income and no means of financial support in South Africa.

Unemployment in South Africa is at a record high of nearly 30 per cent and getting a benefit is out of the question as the couple left their jobs voluntarily to take up work in New Zealand.

But Iain Lees-Galloway clarified that the Government has "set a high bar for all criteria", so a family in their home country with networks to support them would be unlikely to pass the threshold.

It's devastating news for the Badenhorsts as they have to consider their children's lack of schooling while overseas and their dire financial situation. They feel at a loss but are still hoping against hope that matters will change so they can return "New Zealand has always been our plan A".