Update: Craig Hurn returned to his family in South Africa in October after his twelfth failed application for an exemption. With the new ‘one-off’ residency visa that arrived just a few days after his departure, he will try and return to New Zealand with his family in the new year – and failing that, they will set their sights on Canada.

They saw New Zealand as a chance to start a new life with their families. But the promise of a safe and stable future has been broken by the machinations of an unyielding bureaucracy.

Craig Hurn wants nothing more than to walk down Orewa Beach with his family, or sit with them on a bench and eat fish and chips.

Despite this he’s sold his car and is packing up his things to go back to South Africa.

“I don’t want to leave this beautiful country,” he said. “But how long can I just keep kicking this can down the road?”

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To Hurn and his wife, New Zealand was a dream – a place where they and their children could build a new life. One with opportunities for a safe and stable future he doesn’t see back home.

He arrived early last year to scope things out for the rest of the family, and managed to find a job as an engineering manager – since then he has worked on critical infrastructure projects for Waka Kotahi, KiwiRail and the City Rail Link.

But it has been almost 18 months since he was last with his family. Over that time, 10 applications for travel exemption have been roundly rejected by Immigration New Zealand (INZ) – despite Hurn holding a higher skilled and higher paid migrant visa.

He’s just not critical enough, said INZ.

“New Zealand accepted me, but now all of a sudden, no, they say the criteria has changed,” said Hurn.

So he’s waking up from the dream – and heading home.

“I went to my employer and I said ‘Look, I’ve given it a shot’,” he said. “But without my wife and family, what’s the point of me staying here?”

Hurn is not the only one. Recent migrants around the country are undergoing the emotional strain of remaining separate from their families – and despite the Government’s calls for more skilled migrants, there has been little done to address the issue.

Skilled migrant Craig Hurn says the “shine of New Zealand has dimmed” after struggling to get his family over to join him. Photo: Supplied

Immigration adviser Katy Armstrong estimates there are several thousand families split.

And it’s not just temporary migrants. 

“It’s affecting Kiwis who have partnerships that don’t fit our restrictive partnership requirements,” she said.

Armstrong said the Government initially talked about solving the issue, but then nothing more was done.

“The Prime Minister talked of sequencing in families as early as last April, but then we experienced a complete wall and stoney silence.”

She said the Government has been creating only narrow, cherry-picked criteria – almost impossible to meet – in order to look as though it’s addressing the issues. “It’s window dressing as far as we are concerned.”

Hurn echoed this belief. 

“When they get a bit of mud on their face they change, just enough so that people won’t point the finger at them.”

Although Armstrong has been using her background in human rights law to advocate for migrants for years, New Zealand’s border closures kicked her work into a higher gear.

“Last March … I saw a serious humanitarian situation unfolding of huge proportions,” she said. “Hence I have become more than just an immigration adviser; I’ve moved into lobbying work on a much more pronounced level.”

Being apart from loved ones for so long takes its toll.

“I miss my family – it’s been an emotional boxing match,” he said.

Hurn said by not giving split families the chance to reunite, the Government isn’t just lacking compassion – it’s stymying the economy.

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“When I leave New Zealand, the economy loses,” he said. He’s a mechanical engineer, his wife is a chartered accountant, his son a microbiologist and his daughter had already been accepted to study nursing at Manukau Institute of Technology.

Nursing, laboratory science and infrastructure engineering jobs feature prominently on INZ’s list of long-term skill shortages, while accountants are sorely needed across the regions.

“There are loads of skilled individuals in this situation,” said Hurn.

While he said he loves the people and the country itself, Hurn leaves New Zealand with a bitter taste in his mouth.

“When I leave I’m going to have a very negative opinion on how the country is run and won’t recommend people come here,” he said. “The shine of New Zealand has dimmed.”

Although many of the migrants in question are in high demand in New Zealand according to Immigration New Zealand’s shortage lists, families have still had travel exemptions denied. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Justin Gregory is another South African caught in the middle of moving his life to New Zealand by the borders closing.

Now he’s here working in IT – another area INZ lists as in high demand – and his family are back in Johannesburg. They’ve sold their family home and their possessions have been in lock-up for over a year.

What’s worse is Gregory hasn’t seen his young children since the beginning of last year.

“It’s tough,” he said. “Watching a two-year-old go to a four-year-old without being there – maybe learning to ride a bike, playing catch…”

His family were booked to join him just days after the borders were closed – and now it’s the same story as so many others: rejection after rejection.

He said the government response has been unresponsive and unwilling to adapt.

“The country and the people have been amazing,” he said. “The sadness is I expected a lot more of the Government.”

Gregory is set to return to South Africa for a few months later this year, and then his family have their sights set on the United Kingdom.

“It’s doubtful I would consider New Zealand again,” he said. “The reasons we chose New Zealand in the first place still hold true, but there’s not enough certainty on offer.”

Numbers of migrants entering the country predictably dropped around the beginning of the pandemic, but they were at a peak in the months before – with more than 21,000 arriving in January 2020. 

Just a few months later, the rules of a Covid-hit world were in place, and any migrants arriving ahead of their families were put in the same position as Hurn and Gregory.

The hardship these families are going through in their separation is testament to a failed immigration policy the Government seems unwilling to correct, according to Armstrong.

“It stems from an overall lack of will to resolve this, driven by what appears to be an ideological fervour to reduce numbers by whatever means,” she said. “It’s way bigger than this thing called Covid, no matter what they say. Were there a will to fix this, it would have been done.”

Armstrong wants a commitment from the Government to find some sort of resolution, as well as consult Kiwis as to how they want the border to function.

“They could actually poll the New Zealand public as to whether we think having the right to go on a holiday or in and out of MIQ as often as we like is more important than reuniting a family,” she said. “Walk the talk of being anything remotely like a caring, listening and transparent Government.”

As for Hurn, he is in the process of picking his life back up and taking it home. For him to stay, it would take a commitment from the Government.

“We would need a commitment from INZ – or some kind of light at the end of the tunnel.”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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