Children of the 'Parents are Family, Too' group, pleading with the Government to expedite reunion with overseas grandparents. Photo: Supplied

Split families want to know why parents aren’t considered immediate family

With a pair of 11-week-old twins, a four-year-old boy and a husband working full-time, Ashleigh Mills has her hands full.

The Martinborough mother didn’t expect to have to take on so much by herself, but with her parents stuck back in her native Sydney due to ongoing border restrictions for non-residents, she has little choice.

“It’s pretty alienating doing it all by yourself,” she said.

When her son was born four years ago, she was lucky enough to have her parents fly over the Tasman and lend a hand with childcare and bond with the new addition to the family.

Ashleigh Mills, with newborn twins and four-year-old son. Photo: Supplied

Life during a global pandemic means the Tasman will continue to be a much less frequented thoroughfare until general travel opens up in July. And for people with parents further afield in non-visa waiver countries like South Africa or India, the reunion must wait until October.

While they conceded that travel restrictions formed an important bulwark in New Zealand’s defence against Covid-19, a group of split families are questioning the order and timing of the walls coming down.

From March 13, people aged between 18 and 30 from a list of 45 countries will be able to enter New Zealand on a working holiday visa, with international students granted access in April.

British immigrant Andrew Ford is the co-founder of ‘Parents are Family Too’ – a 3500 person-strong group of people affected by continued separation from their parents.

He wants to know why parents don’t come under Immigration New Zealand’s criteria for immediate family eligible for a travel exemption.

At the moment, travel exemptions cover the partner or dependent child of a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident, if the visa is based on this relationship.

Ford was influenced to get the group going after seeing similar rules in Australia changed in November of last year, which allowed parents of adult Australian citizens and permanent residents enter the country.

But with issues like MIQ capacity and Kiwis finding themselves unable to come home, Ford held off on making a big push for the change last year.

Recent announcements allowing New Zealanders to freely travel into the country without self-isolation, and the unveiling of the timeline for reopening told him it was time to ask why family doesn’t cover parents.

“One more border exception for parents of New Zealand citizens,” he said. “It’s an easy thing for them to change.”

It’s a change that would see his parents get to meet his one-year-old and reunite with his four-year-old son, who hasn’t seen them for half of his life.

‘Parents are Family, Too’ co-founder Andrew Ford with the part of his family the Government defines as immediate. Photo: Supplied

He wonders if this group has been neglected as the Government doesn’t have as much pressure enacted on them on their behalf – as may be the case when it comes to working holiday visas

Backpackers are a lot more likely to work a season picking fruit than grandparents, and pressure from the primary industry which represents around half of New Zealand’s export earnings, could speak volumes.

“There’s no economic reason to bring in the parents, and rotting fruit is not a good headline,” Ford said.

But outside of economics, the group wonders why allowances can’t be made on compassionate grounds, especially now that the Omicron variant is well and truly in the country and self-isolation and MIQ have been scrapped for many arrivals.

For Mills, it would mean the end of a growing list of milestones she has gone through without her parents around – not just the birth of her twins, but her wedding in January of last year. She described her parents’ absence as a “horrible blow”.

Ford reiterated that the group isn’t arguing with the borders themselves, or with the New Zealand Government’s policy of keeping Covid-19 out for as long as possible. Its issue is more to do with the timing of the borders relaxing now that the Covid response has reached this new unforeseen stage.

“It’s just a matter of the criteria,” he said. “Changing it would be easy. They could do it tomorrow.”

A petition calling for these changes was signed by 5384 people and presented to Parliament in December. The petition stressed that New Zealand’s multicultural society means a large number of people have parents based overseas, who are often in their final years.

According to the 2018 Census, more than a quarter of the national population were born overseas, whereas just over half of Auckland reported the same.

For many of those people, this means having family in non-visa waiver countries, who at the moment need to wait until October before having the chance to enter the country. However, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern did signal this date may be brought forward as conditions change around the world.

Countries that have to wait include some of the most common homelands for immigrants to New Zealand: China, India, South Africa, Fiji, Samoa and the Phillipines.

Kirsty Hutchison, manager of immigration policy at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, said tight border restrictions over the past two years were in place to protect New Zealanders from the impacts of Covid-19, but they also meant the Government was forced to make some tough decisions regarding who they could let into the country.

Limited MIQ capacity has meant the Government has had to carefully balance economic, social and humanitarian outcomes, said Hutchison.

“The definition of immediate family in New Zealand’s immigration settings extends to partners and dependents only,” she said. “It was not possible to include parents of the visa holder in the family reunification border exception due to the added pressure a larger group would have had on our MIQ system.”

She said while it’s true that parents will need to wait until July or October to enter the country, Cabinet is considering bringing these steps of the border reopening forward.

Whether or not this happens will make a world of difference to Pia Rampling. Rampling gave birth to a daughter last month while her parents were stuck on the other side of the Tasman.

The opening of the border for other groups makes her wonder why her parents can’t meet their grand-daughter or reunite with her almost four-year-old son.

“I’ve always had an awareness that we are in a pandemic,” she said. “But now with cases in the community, the game has changed.”

With the birth of her first born, Rampling experienced severe post-natal depression, and it was her parents’ arrival and support that helped her to get through it.

As the birth of her youngest approached, she knew her mother wouldn’t be there to provide that support again.

She described it as “heartbreakingly frustrating, like New Zealand has forgotten me”.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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