Week in Review

‘Forgotten’ migrants locked out

As the borders closed thousands of migrants found themselves locked out of the country and unable to get back in. Our Government and the public have been increasingly unwilling to listen to their pleas, Dileepa Fonseka reports.

Temporary workers got a cold hard dose of hardening anti-migrant attitudes at Dubai International Airport as our borders shut down.

Check-in staff for the Dubai to Auckland flight started weeding people on temporary visas out as the flight started getting ready to take off on March 19th.

By the end of it a small group of panicked temporary migrants and students from Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa watched on as relieved New Zealand citizens and permanent residents boarded their flight then took off.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's decision to close the border to non-residents in March locked those temporary workers out even if they had a valid visa to return or had lived here for several years.

Many temporary migrants have been trying to get back in ever since, but after the borders closed only permanent residents and citizens have been allowed back. Even if temporary migrants can find a flight they are not allowed to board a plane unless they can get a special exemption from the Government. 

Immigration NZ provided an update at the end of April that said 5962 people had applied for border closure exemptions. Only 1231 were judged to have met the narrow criteria to be granted one.

Lawyer Alastair McClymont said he had received hundreds of pleas from clients overseas who were trying to come back and believed the Government should make its intentions for these visa holders clear and fair.

"None of these people are asking for anything for free. They are not asking for free flights. They're not asking for free quarantining for 14 days. They just want the ability to come back to either save their jobs or recover their possessions."

"There's one girl who emailed me and said all of her wedding jewellery from her Mother and Grandmother ... it's sitting in her house. And now the landlord is threatening that unless she is going to pay her rent he's going to repossess the house and then three generations of family wedding jewellery is going to be gone."

A spokeswoman for Minister of Immigration Iain Lees-Galloway said the Government was "considering the issues for people on visas who are stuck outside New Zealand", but wouldn't make any comments beyond that.

"I was literally shaking when I was talking [to airport staff]...I had a panic attack and I just wasn't sure what was going to happen to me." 

Newsroom has been told the Government is considering ways of extending time limits on visas so that people offshore can re-enter. However, it is concerned some of those migrants will not have jobs available after the Covid-19 shutdown and that the country doesn't have the capacity to quarantine them on arrival.

Shuchi Bhardwaj was one of those migrants left stranded at Dubai airport after a brief trip to Tanzania to visit her parents. She sat on the floor of Dubai Airport for 15 hours sending messages and trying to call anybody in the Government or human rights community who might reply.

Earlier travel guidance indicated people would be able to get into the country if they checked in for their flight by 11.59pm Thursday March 19 New Zealand standard time.

Bhardwaj did, but by the time she got to Dubai to catch her connecting flight to Auckland the website had changed to reflect new rules that passengers were required to board the final leg of their flight before that 11.59pm deadline. Her ticket back to New Zealand had been invalidated mid-flight.

"I was literally shaking when I was talking [to airport staff]...I had a panic attack and I just wasn't sure what was going to happen to me." 

The small change in terminology left her and others at Dubai Airport with no chance of returning to families, friends and - in her case - her fiancée in New Zealand.

It also left some with the prospect of being forced to return to heavily coronavirus-infected countries. Bhardwaj remembered the mad scramble an Italian migrant made to try and find a third-country he could shelter in without having to return to Italy. A Brazilian passenger contemplated flying to Bali until we re-opened our border to temporary migrants.

"We feel like we've been forgotten....we studied, we paid our dues, we paid all of our fees and right now we're paying tax."

Signs of coronavirus panic were all around them at the airport. Bhardwaj was wearing a face mask and every hour or so a passenger would stop by to ask her where they could get their own.

Terrified of getting infected, she didn't take her mask off until she got back to her parent's home in Tanzania. The back of her ears had started bleeding from the elastic.


New Zealand holds a lot of good memories for Bhardwaj and her fiancée Randula Herath. The couple had their first date at La Porchetta in Parnell and he proposed to her on one knee last October at a beach in St Heliers. 

However, attitudes were hardening against migrants and Herath said people in his fiancée's position had been "forgotten".

"More than five years I've been here, but I never met someone who was racist or anything like that.

"[Now] it's 'them or us' that's the idea. That's what I'm getting and feeling.

"We feel like we've been forgotten....we studied, we paid our dues, we paid all of our fees and right now we're paying tax."

A spokeswoman for Immigration New Zealand said the bar for being granted an exception to the border restrictions was set high to help stop the spread of Covid-19 and protect the health of people here.

Messages and stories about Bhardwaj's situation have been met with more replies that she, and others like her, should "go home" and "stay out". 

A federation of multicultural organisations have also rallied against temporary migrants being allowed to return.

Multicultural NZ - whose role is to "represent and support multicultural councils and ethnic, migrant and refugee communities" - has spoken out against letting people like Bhardwaj back in. The organisation's President Pancha Narayan, put out a press release calling for temporary workers not to be admitted back into the country. 

"There has been a call from different sectors, especially from primary industries like dairy, agriculture and horticulture that are heavily reliant on migrant workers, for NZ to allow workers with temporary work visas back into the country.

"Considering the current extraordinary circumstances, it is MNZ’s view that New Zealand needs to look at giving these jobs to the growing number of kiwis who will now be without work.

"Multicultural New Zealand advocates for Covid-related industry gaps to be filled by unemployed New Zealanders before opening up borders and workforce to returning migrants."


A concrete outhouse in Tanzania is Bhardwaj's new home for now. Her parents are frontline workers and have isolated themselves from their daughter so that she won't catch the virus.

She can barely squeeze in more than three hours' sleep.

Headlines in the country have been worrying her. The Government has been accused of hushing up coronavirus death figures with secret night burials. People allege bodies in the streets are not being picked up for the same reason.

Meanwhile, Bhardwaj's employer in Whangarei has kept her job open for her, but she worried it wouldn't hold without some certainty about her likely return to the country. 

She didn't want the Government to actively organise a 'mercy' flight or pay for quarantine.

All she wanted was for them not to block her return when commercial aviation came back.

"I never expected something like this to happen."

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