Last year in November, Indian Weekender featured the story of Rini Mohandas Vishnu who due to the closure of New Zealand’s border is living in India, separated from her husband for over 300 days. The story was published on her first wedding anniversary and now, as she comes up to her second, her situation remains unchanged.

Rini was granted a visa to join her NZ based husband on March 13 last year just a few days before borders closed for everyone except citizens and permanent residents. Since then, her visa has expired, and the couple have now not met for over 500 days.

Rini is among the hundreds of Indian families and thousands of Kiwi families who have been stuck in a limbo due to the lack of certainty and ineptitude of the current immigration policies. What started as calls for kindness last year from these families, are now turning into roars of frustration as they seek different ways to get an answer or just a FaceTime with relevant Labour ministers.

Social media platforms have turned into a source of solace and comfort for these families. A Facebook search by Indian Weekender revealed that there are over seven Facebook groups with over 12,000 members that are either looking at getting back to New Zealand, a renewal or extension to their General Visitor Visa (GVV), Partnership based Visitor Visa (PVV) or Work Visa.

Hoping to make a collective impact, Rini conducted a survey on the NZ Indian Split Families group of over 400 members – a population size equivalent to that of Tekapo in the South Island of New Zealand. According to the survey results, 85 per cent of split families have been affected by depression, anxiety, and stress issues not just for the people involved in the applications but also for their extended families, both onshore and offshore. Many have looked for counselling sessions to help them come to terms with the current situation.

Over 75.8 per cent of those who responded have been separated from their families for more than 18 months. Alpa Desai, another strong voice in this growing dissent against the government’s muted stance on immigration policies has not met her partner of seven years for over a year and five months.

Like Rini, Alpa’s story was first featured in the media in May last year. Since, then she has barely seen any movement on her case or consideration to her husband’s GVV renewal or extension application. She has been instrumental in writing a letter to the Prime Minister, a copy of which is in the possession of Indian Weekender, that also includes names and circumstances of over 68 other individuals who are in a similar position.

“This situation has caused a lot of anxiety,” she said, “because firstly we don't have a line of sight as to when they will open the borders. There is so much of confusion within the immigration staff themselves. Nobody knows what they're doing, to be honest. If you go to one case officer, they'll give you one answer, you go to a different case officer, they'll give you a different answer. There is a lot of inconsistency.”

Rini agrees with the sentiment, as when she applied for an exemption to her visa, she was informed that because she had not been living with her husband, her situation will be considered only later after the border reopen. She said, “For our family, it's like we are stuck in a video game. We are just chasing after something, just running.”

The General Visitor Visa and Living Together Criteria

In July this year, the government cancelled 50,000 visitor visas. Among those were applications for partners hoping to reunite with their loved ones under the GVV or PVV category. According to the NZ Indian Split families survey, over 50 per cent of those stuck in India were granted one of the two visas, which have since expired.

The reasons for this high percentage of Indians in the visitor visa category was a result of the new culturally arranged visa announced in 2019. As some couples, particularly those in arranged marriages, could not meet the criteria of having lived together, many were left to prove they were in a genuine relationship through these visitor visas, which allowed the couples to spend time together.

Since borders are currently closed for anyone besides permanent resident and citizens, these couples that fall under the broad category of visitor visa are now unable to travel to meet their partners.

Repeated attempts to extend these visas have been in vain, as it is believed there has been no directive to provide any concrete answers. INZ has not been processing offshore visitor applications since the start of the pandemic unless applicants have been given a border exception.

Alpa in her letter to the Prime Minister urges the government to review the "living together" criteria for Partnership based visas. She writes, “We feel the criteria is highly discriminatory especially towards the Indian community because of the fact that most marriages that take place in the community are culturally arranged and partners cannot live together before tying the wedding knot; this also means majority of the Indian married couples cannot reunite because they will not meet this criterion.”

Rini, Alpa and other families affected by this separation are keen to provide suggestions to the government to expediate this process. Rini said, “We are trying to reach the government, that means we are expecting a fruitful decision from their end. It wasn’t that we were expecting this pandemic, everyone had border closure. But at least New Zealand has had 1.5 years to plan this, so they must have way a forward for family reunification because it’s impacting all the migrant in the country.”

 They suggest that New Zealand allow people who had approved visas prior to the border closure but were now active oer expired to enter New Zealand via EOI options. Rini said, “In UAE, they provide visitor visa for all, and for those with expired cases, they have created different polices for them. GVV doesn't just mean a tourist visa. We have visas that were approved dependent on our partners status in New Zealand. So, we are genuine partners, children, and parents and we need justice for our expired GVV cases and for those who are already in the queue.”

India leading vaccinations – so why not let Indians into the country?

This week, India's COVID vaccination coverage has just crossed the landmark of 750 million doses. The World Health Organisation has congratulated Indian for its achievement in administering the first 100 million doses in 85 days and reaching 750 million doses from 650 million in just 13 days.

According to leading American scientist, Dr Peter Hotez, Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, India in collaboration with leading global institutions has rescued the world from the deadly COVID virus.

And despite this turn, India’s status on the high-risk country for New Zealand has not been reviewed since June this year. According to the INZ, only New Zealand citizens and their immediate family members travelling from high-risk countries are eligible for entry to New Zealand. Other travelers, including New Zealand residents, can enter only if they spend 14 days outside a very high-risk country before their arrival here. Post which, people must now consider the hassle with the MIQ vouchers

This has left many disgruntled and feeling discriminated. Alpa said, “For the last few months, there have been restrictions on PR holders who are travelling from India, whereas India has one of the best vaccination programs in the world. The COVID rate is dropping, so why isn’t the government lifting the travel ban? Why do the PR holders have to spend two weeks in another country before they come to New Zealand? I feel like everything the government is currently doing is so discriminatory, especially towards the Indian community.” 

70% of those surveyed are now considering leaving New Zealand

Lack of any clear timeline, or any pathway to family reunification are the main reasons stated in the survey for quitting on New Zealand. The current immigration operations based on segregation in terms of visa type, salary criteria, and industry, has frustrated many in the group leaving them to deal with mental health issues – leading many to consider a better life in countries like Canada.

Having now moved past the government’s “be kind” mantra, Rini asked the government to be empathetic to the situation of family’s that have been split for over 500 days. She said, “New Zealand cannot continue with these COVID-19 border restrictions. It's already been two years, we have been away from our family for all the occasions. Our partner’s birthdays, our anniversaries, Christmases and celebrations are passing on. But in New Zealand, the leaders, they must have their families, they must be surrounded by them. They can't imagine our situation, what we are facing, so they should step into our shoes and see what our situation is like.”

An open letter along with the survey responses was sent to the Prime Minister along with High Commissioner of India to New Zealand, Muktesh Pardeshi and Bhav Dhillon, Honorary Consul of India, who responded on Twitter with their full support. A tweet from the Indian High Commission and Bhav Dhillon indicated that the Embassy and the Indian Ministry for External Affairs has engaged with the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and followed up with regarding easing of the travel restriction from India, especially for students and split families.