Engaged couple Kuldeep Bhatt and Alpa Desai have been separated for a year by border closures. Photo: Supplied

Thousands are separated from their loved ones by border restrictions – and the hardest thing is not knowing when things are going to change. Matthew Scott spoke to migrants who say they just want some concrete answers.

When Alpa Desai left her fiancé in India last April, she thought it would be a matter of months before they were reunited. He had a valid partnership visa – there was nothing to say her family wouldn’t be back together by the time of her daughter’s 16th birthday in June.

A year on, she still hasn’t seen him and has no idea when she will again.

It’s been stressful and lonely, and a lack of communication from the Government hasn’t helped.

After her partner Kuldeep Bhatt’s previous visa expired, they applied for a new one in September of 2020. And six months on, there has been no progress.

“There was no communication for months,” she said. “When I finally got a hold of our case worker, they said they haven’t even touched the file.”

Desai’s case is not unique. Thousands of families remain separated, with people stuck offshore away from loved ones, jobs, possessions and properties they are still paying rent on. 

At the beginning of the first lockdown, media reported 50,000 people had been stranded offshore. While this number will have dropped as some migrants find a way back, Migrant Rights Network president Sher Singh receives texts looking for their help on a daily basis.

“Lives have been destroyed,” he said. “This has broken marriages. I know of one person who has tried committing suicide twice.”

But the worst thing has been the silence from the Government.

Singh said a plan of action or a hard refusal would allow migrants to go on with their lives, but non-committal promises have left them in limbo.

“It’s the confusion that leaves them not knowing what to do, feeling helpless and voiceless.”

The Government didn’t consider offshore migrants in their plans when they closed the border, Singh said. 

“From day one, our only demand was to hold visas until the borders open and deal with all of it then.”

Instead, thousands of migrants have had visas lapse while they wait for flights or spaces in managed isolation.

They just want some answers.

“We’ve had no luck trying to have a sit-down with [minister of immigration] Kris Faafoi. Multiple letters and emails have simply gone unanswered.”

Kuldeep Bhatt and Alpa Desai say the worst thing has been the silence from the Government. Photo: Supplied 

Migrant Worker’s Association president Anu Kaloti said the Government hasn’t made these migrants a priority. “There doesn’t seem to be any urgency about it,” she said.

“We acknowledge the uncertainty of right now but at the same time – these people are being kept from their lives.”

The Migrant Worker’s Association plans to present a petition to Parliament signed by 20,000 people calling for kinder treatment of migrant workers.

Chief among their demands is allowing ‘normally resident’ New Zealanders stuck offshore to return to New Zealand on the same basis as citizens.

For Desai, this would mark the end of the sleepless nights for her and Bhatt – and the chance for her daughter to be reunited with the father figure she hasn’t seen in over a year.

She felt discriminated against to learn of recent border exemptions for the America’s Cup and The Lion King stage production.

“I’d be more understanding if the rules were the same for everybody, but they are not,” she said.

“I’ve been here 20 years, paying tax and contributing, never taking social welfare. It isn’t fair.”

Singh said these exemptions make migrants who have invested their lives here feel undervalued. “Every week it seems there’s an exemption,” he said. “But not for these people.”

With a packed to capacity managed isolation system, getting permission to enter the country doesn’t ensure these people will be able to go on with their lives any time soon.

“Even those who have managed to get a visa are having trouble finding a space in MIQ,” said Singh.

For Alpa, this means the soonest she could expect to be reunited with Kuldeep is still months away.

At an opening of a Sikh sporting facility in Takanini on Sunday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addressed the issue.

“Our hope is if we continue to vaccinate everyone here, by the end of the year we can start thinking about what a normal New Zealand border looks like.”

Anu Kaloti sees this as an opportunity for the Government to rethink how it treats migrants.

“This has brought the issue to the forefront,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for a reset.”

She has made a call for a special pathway to residency for those who have been here five years or more, or for skilled workers who have been here less than five years.

“Amnesty is what we want,” she said.

Desai and Bhatt just want to get on with their lives.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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