A young family are up against outmoded relationship criteria and strict border restrictions in their struggle to reunite

Four-and-a-half-month-old Ella sees her dad almost every day.

He likes to sing to her, and she knows his voice although she isn’t yet at the point of singing back.

Her parents have tried to make sure that her dad is a significant part of this foundational stage of her life.

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It hasn’t been easy, though. Her father’s entire relationship with her has to come through the restrictive portal of a phone screen.

Ella’s father Gilbert Mantal is 8000km away, on the island of Palawan in the Philippines.

Her mother, Sarah Tecofsky, has been trying desperately to find a way to reunite her young family – but with arbitrary relationship criteria for visas and the shut doors of the global pandemic, it’s been like trying to push a boulder uphill.

Like many split couples and families, Tecofsky and Mantal are calling for compassionate consideration by the Government, and a case-by-case approach to the unyielding blanket rules of immigration.

Gilbert Mantal’s entire relationship with his daughter is conducted through video chat at the moment. Photo: Supplied

After a year of separation, Tecofsky feels like she is no closer to reuniting her family.

“We’re literally stuck,” she said. “My baby’s being kept from her father, but the Wiggles can come in?”

The last time she saw her partner was a year ago, when she was 11 weeks pregnant. Pressure to return home due to the risks of Covid was compounded by a dying grandmother she wanted to farewell.

“I kept telling my family I would go back to New Zealand when my partner got a passport and could join me,” she said. “But he lost his job due to Covid and we were living on our savings which were running low. We could no longer afford to extend my tourist visa in the Philippines.”

So she left for home, expecting that her partner would be able to follow once he received his passport from the Filipino government.

But despite the expectation they would be together soon, it was heart-breaking for her to be alone in MIQ with pregnancy hormones and without him. Then her grandmother passed away two days before she could get out.

Since then, she’s been working on getting her partner over here to join the family. What she didn’t expect was that Immigration New Zealand (INZ) wouldn’t recognise their relationship or that she may have to return to the Philippines, taking on no small cost and risk for her and Ella, to bring him back.

To fit INZ’s relationship criteria, the couple need to provide paperwork like power bills proving cohabitation. But the couple’s life on Palawan living in Mantal’s family home doesn’t fit neatly into the required box.

“There is no house address, no power, no paper trail to follow,” Tecofsky said. She wonders why that should make her relationship any less legitimate than others.

“Surely having a child together should be enough to prove we are genuine?” she asked. “I don’t think the relationship criteria are fair.”

She doesn’t believe INZ’s fine tooth comb approach to the evidence of relationships takes situations like hers in the Third World into account.

Four-and-a-half-month-old Ella knows her dad’s voice, but hasn’t been held by him yet. Photo: Supplied

Nicola Hogg, general manager at INZ, said immigration officers need to be satisfied that relationships are credible, genuine and likely to endure before they can grant partnership visas.

“When determining whether a couple is living together, INZ considers a range of factors including, but not limited to, the existence, nature and extent of a common residence, common ownership of property and the degree of financial dependence and interdependence,” she said. “Consideration is also given to other elements including the degree of commitment to shared life, children of the partnership and public recognition of the relationship.”

But the baby hasn’t been enough to convince INZ of the relationship’s legitimacy, so a year on, Tecofsky’s watching her baby grow up without her dad.

“It’s hard as she’s getting bigger,” she said. “I worry she won’t develop that bond with him if he’s not here physically.”

And life isn’t easy for Mantal, back in Palawan.

“He calls every day,” Tecofsky said. “But it’s hard over there – he has to charge his phone at a neighbour who has electricity, which he can’t always do.”

His large family, who mainly worked in the tourism sector, have been hit hard by the pandemic.

“They’re eating just once a day – mainly just rice.”

All of this while he watches his daughter get bigger every day through his phone screen.

And Tecofsky and Mantal aren’t alone.

Thousands of people are part of split couple and family groups on Facebook, each with their own story of heartbreak in the face of unyielding bureaucracy.

A group of protesters split from their loved ones gathered outside parliament last Monday, calling for changes to INZ’s requirements and relationship criteria.

Alpa Desai helped organise the protest, after being split from her own partner due to INZ not recognising her long-distance relationship of seven years.

She wants the Government to take a good hard look at the relationship criteria.

“Our first point is that they should relax the living criteria for New Zealand citizens,” she said.

Immigration New Zealand said it is constantly reassessing its guidelines as the pandemic goes on. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Hogg said INZ is taking the difficulties of the pandemic into account when assessing couples.

“Covid-19 and travel restrictions have created a unique situation, resulting in people being separated for longer than they likely intended,” she said. “INZ takes into account the disruptions caused by the global pandemic and the travel restrictions resulting from it when assessing partnership applications.”

However, Tecofsky wants to know why the agency is still requiring New Zealand citizens to go on ‘fetch quests’ to pick up their partners.

Currently, a citizen’s partner cannot enter the country alone, meaning the citizen must travel to the other country to get them.

But it’s not so simple as hopping on a plane for a few days in 2021.

She wants the Government to “reconsider the need for people from non visa waiver countries to travel with their New Zealand partners”.

“I would If I could but I am not allowed to enter the Philippines so this is not an option for many people and is expensive and puts more people at risk of getting Covid 19.”

She’ll go pick Mantal up if given the opportunity, but she’s worried about the risk of going to the Covid-ravaged country with a baby, and mindful of the huge cost of travel and another stay in MIQ.

“I worked three jobs through my pregnancy,” she said. “Last October I worked 38 days straight. That money was supposed to be for setting up our future here.”

But the hardest thing, she said, is not knowing when they’ll see each other again.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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