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Visa delay forces 'heartbroken' mum to leave baby in India

Staff shortages and a backlog of cases are being blamed for continued delays to visas which are separating families and causing headaches for students and businesses.

Delays to visa processing, which began in November, have continued past what Immigration New Zealand (INZ) had described as summer peak demand.

A restructure which saw 10 branches closed - and the centralisation of processing in Beijing, Mumbai and the remaining New Zealand and Pacific offices - has left the organisation struggling to recruit and train staff to keep up with the volumes of applications.

Caught up in the delays are international students who have not been able to start their courses and visa-holders waiting for their partners' and children's visas to be approved.

Among them is Nimmy Francis, who is desperate to be reunited with her baby, Ethan, and husband Sujith Thomas.

She took leave from her nursing job in Auckland to return to India to have her baby. Ethan was born in November and she applied for his visa in February thinking it would be issued in time for her return to New Zealand in May.

But she had to leave her breastfed-baby behind with her husband and other relatives as her employer needed her back.

"They're saying that they're getting a lot of applications from India for work visas so they're giving more priority to the student and visitor visas but they are keeping the partnership visas for a lot longer time.

"It's really heartbreaking leaving the baby. It's a really tough time what's going on now.

"I call them, they can't give any priority to my application.

"My baby has to suffer that for a long time, he has only had his breastfeeding for five months.

"I'm not thinking about my pain, only about my baby's health.

"We are just applying for a visitor visa. For them it's not that difficult a thing to make sure my baby gets a visitor visa in one or two or a few months.

"At least they could give some update or replies to our emails but from Mumbai immigration [we] are not getting any reply, any update. When we call they just say we can go online or they have a lot of applications."

She video calls her five-month-old son. "He's not really looking at my face because he's not recognising me," she said. "He's not looking at me, he's not smiling, all those things are really heartbreaking."

Her husband has not worked since leaving his job in Dubai five months ago to join her, planning to get work in New Zealand too.

If it's an annual peak in demand, they should do more to respond to it, she said

Also affected by delays are students, such as Arun Paul, from Kerala in India. His application for a student visa to attend an applied information technology course starting at the end of April had taken more than three months.

"I have also a number of friends whom I know, have applied more than 100 days [ago] and still don't have any kind of progress in their applications, of which most applied for the February intake and were not able to go," he said.

The Association for Migration and Investment, NZAMI, is the industry organisation for immigration advisers.

Its policy chair, Arunima Dhingra, who runs AIMS Global, said the delays are very frustrating, and especially long for students and partners of visa-holders or New Zealand citizens, many in India.

"There are partners who've been waiting for seven months," she said. "I just think it's very unfair especially as they're not being given a heads-up [about the wait].

"Because they've got such a huge queue, how are they going to communicate to all of those people? Because they are all in the queue."

Closure of Delhi office causing problems in India, immigration adviser says

The closure of the Delhi branch led to the loss of experienced staff, she said.

Consequences included women waiting in India for a visa after an arranged marriage, who are facing social stigma and family pressure from those who do not understand the months-long separation from their New Zealand-based partner.

Ms Dhingra said NZAMI had good relationships with Immigration New Zealand, which is trying to correct the problems in Mumbai but did not see them coming - although the industry did.

"Maybe the management didn't anticipate that things were going to start falling through so quickly," she said.

"With Delhi's closure there was this whole lot of partnership applications that just backlogged because Mumbai was never really equipped training-wise.

"I know that Mumbai has had 10 additional staff just hired to help out with the student applications, six specially hired for partnerships but they are new officers so while they are processing the applications they are still having to do all the training."

Most student visas except Indian applications and a few other nationalities had been transferred to Palmerston North to try to clear the backlog, she added.

"Because of the huge student backlog it wasn't sending out a good message for New Zealand and the student market is a huge market; it's one of the biggest industries in New Zealand."

Visa volumes had continued rising past the November to March peak period, said INZ assistant general manager Jeannie Melville, in a written statement.

"To meet that demand, INZ has recruited more New Zealand-based staff and as the staff become more experienced, productivity will increase and timeliness will improve," she said.

"In regards to the Mumbai office, INZ currently has a high volume of applications and as such applications are taking longer to process than they have in the past. INZ is focused on allocating applications as quickly as possible and has increased processing capacity in the Mumbai office to address the increase in volume, with additional staff already recruited and due to commence work this month.

"Additionally, INZ is utilising capacity in other visa processing offices to further improve processing times. For example, INZ is currently moving offshore student work from Europe, the Americas and some South East Asia markets from Mumbai to Palmerston North.

"There are high volumes of temporary visa applications from the Indian subcontinent on hand at present. The majority of this work requires additional information or verification (approximately 95 percent). This includes partnership, student and visitor applications."

Ms Melville said it took longer to process applications where additional information or verification was required. "This includes applications where risk indicators for potential future exploitation are present. Applications of this nature are placed in a queue and are processed in order of receipt."

Anthea (second from left), with her family Levi, Leia and Junaid. Source: Supplied / RNZ

Family 'ripped apart'

Anthea Razack, who is already in New Zealand with her husband, Junaid, and daughter Leia, said immigration policy and processes have had a big impact on her family.

They have spent an estimated $15,000 on work visas, renewals and variations, but the biggest issue was for their 19-year-old son, Levi.

While his parents are on work visas, Levi would have been treated as an international student for his much-anticipated psychology course at Auckland University. The $38,000 university fees were beyond them, and Levi was ineligible for a student loan.

They applied for residence in January. Levi went back to South Africa because he could neither work nor study, and had spent a year and a half at home doing nothing.

"This bright bubbly young man became depressed and despondent. Despite my concerns about his health and safety, I had no choice but to send him back so he could keep himself occupied while we wait.

"It's basically ripped my family apart."

The weekly call to INZ with no updates caused frustration but had not dulled their hope. "This country has offered us so much. I just wish we could understand what is causing the delays and how they fix it."

Gill Bonnett

rnz.co.nz

Nimmy Francis is desperate to be reunited with her baby, Ethan, and husband Sujith Thomas. Source: Supplied / India