When the borders closed in March 2021, immigrants who were cut off from their families never imagined they’d still be waiting to be reunited more than a year later. Now many are at their breaking point, they tell Branko Marcetic.
Despite all the worries that had driven Johan and Sumari Steyn to leave South Africa, neither had used medication to cope with the stress. Nor had Johan ever spent more than two weeks apart from his family.
That’s all changed since last year. Today Johan, 47 and a civil engineer, is just one of the thousands of New Zealand visa holders, residents and citizens living with the anxiety of being separated from their partners and children more than a year after the New Zealand border closed. For 14 months, they’ve waited to learn when and how they’ll be reunited with their loved ones, and for 14 months the government has dodged the issue. Now migrants are tired of waiting.
On Wednesday evening, migrants, immigration activists, and unionists gathered across the country — in Auckland, Christchurch, Hamilton, Queenstown and Wellington — to call for action from the government on a host of demands. Those include detaching work visas from employers, giving residency to migrants already in the country, and putting more funding into Immigration New Zealand to end visa processing delays.
Maybe most urgently, they demand that migrants and New Zealanders be reunited with family members still stranded overseas since last year, and that those locked out of the country by bad timing be finally let through the border. And if the government doesn’t listen, they’re prepared to turn up the volume until it does.
Johan Steyn’s story is by now a familiar one. Having just barely squeaked through the closing doors of the border, he went straight into lockdown with no income for more than a month. After initially being given what he calls “false hope” from Immigration New Zealand (INZ) they’d let families through case by case, he says, what followed was a year of stonewalling.
He and Sumari spent untold hours on hold with immigration, only sometimes getting through. By November, they’d sold all their South African assets, including their home and two businesses. Through racked with anxiety over his family’s safety — besides a rampaging virus, he says, they had to stay in a bed and breakfast near a dangerous area — they were repeatedly rejected for border exemption, told that “humanitarian grounds” meant only matters of life and death.
By the end of 2020, after running two households on a single income for months, they were feeling the financial sting. In New Zealand, Johan was refused a credit card because he was only a visa holder. In South Africa, with no more assets to her name, Sumari couldn’t take out a loan.
He says they’ve spent the majority of their life savings now. And his daughters are struggling. His eldest has seen her grades suffer, while his youngest was told by her classmates her dad would find another wife while he was gone. All the while, hopes raised by the government’s serial assurances that things would happen soon have been repeatedly dashed.
“If you want to torture somebody for a year and a half, you do to them what they did to us,” Johan says.
Over the past year, I’ve heard countless stories like Johan’s. There’s Dewald Loedolff, 44, separated from his wife and young son since December 2019 by cosmically bad luck: the immigration officer on their case unexpectedly went on leave, delaying their son’s visa, which was finally approved the same day the border closed. When I spoke to him in March, he told me his family had been rejected for border exemption five times at $45 per application, and his letters to the prime minister had gone unanswered. He had been sending $800 a month to his wife, who had quit her job as a dental hygienist and was staying with his parents, together with their seven-year-old.
“Every night he cries,” he said about his son, who told his mother he’d never see his father again.
Or there’s Jackie*, a South African social worker who sold everything thinking that, as a skilled worker, she could eventually bring her husband and adult son over. Instead, they fell into a “very long limbo period,” her family renting a house and living out of boxes, doing what they could to get by. When we spoke, she was labouring under the stress of thousands of dollars worth of immigration expenses, the fear of her family falling victim to a pandemic-driven spike in crime, and being cut off from their support.
“How your relationship is is very important to [INZ],” she told me. “And yet it’s been violated and not recognised since last year.”
It’s Kafkaesque ordeals like these that yesterday brought around 150 people to Aotea Square on a rainy Auckland night. While migrants from India and South Africa have been particularly hard hit by the border closure, those who attended came from all over: Ireland, Argentina, the Philippines and many more.
These migrants say the family separations and standings of the Covid border closure are just new versions of long-running injustices caused by immigration policy, and accuse successive governments of widening the pool of temporary migrants while making it increasingly hard for them to settle. Employment of temporary migrants grew nearly 500% from 2001-09, and has grown every year since, reaching 200,000 people in 2020. Residence approvals, meanwhile, were only 47,600 — barely more than the 44,598 approved two decades earlier.
Robert, 47, spoke through tears about his own struggle with the system. Told, “We need people like you” by New Zealand immigration officials years earlier, he took them up on their word and obtained a work-to-residence visa. Since then, he estimated he’d spent around $150,000 to secure residence for himself and his family, only for INZ to delay and reject what feel like endless applications. As a further kick in the teeth, his wife and children have been stranded since making the “fatal mistake” of returning to Switzerland on holiday just before lockdown. Unable to enrol in the schools there, his kids have lost a year of education, and he’s unsure what to do.
“Be fair to us,” he pleaded.
Parag, 28, an accounts manager for a logistics company, faces a similar situation on his work-to-residence visa, and said he was on the verge of quitting his job and leaving over the difficulties his wife was having in emigrating before the pandemic. With similar delays and uncertainty in his own case, he wondered how he’s supposed to plan for a family. Both he and Robert feel used by a system that told them they were wanted, then pulled the rug out.
“I feel like I’ve been bullshitted by them from the start,” said Robert.
Fixing the myriad injustices like these in New Zealand’s immigration system is going to take substantial time, effort and investment. But for now, the very least the government could do is end the trauma it’s inflicting on children and families with its inaction on split families.
Johan says he knows people who have left the country, while he’s had to talk others out of it. While his relationship has weathered the past 14 months, he’s not so sure about others.
“I think they’ve ruined marriages,” he says of INZ.
That night, I caught up with David Louw, another skilled South African immigrant who had sold everything to start a new life in New Zealand, only for his family to be stranded at the last minute and left effectively homeless. When I talked to him in December, he was worried for his family, but looked forward to them eventually arriving. Now, he’s in the final stages of a divorce. And while he doesn’t entirely blame Covid, what he’s endured over the past year took its toll.
“I’ve changed,” he remembers telling his wife. “I’m not who I was.”
* Following publication of this story, The Spinoff learned that Jackie has resigned from her job and is going back home to South Africa. “The situation has become too intolerable for me, and the waiting as well,” she said.