Since 2020, more than 50 countries either can't receive mail from NZ, or aren't sending it to us. Photo: NZ Post

Abann Yor, refugee advocate and Auckland community leader, needs to send visa application documents to his mother in war-torn South Sudan. He can’t email them – immigration needs original signatures from both him and his mum. Private document courier services are expensive. And the post? Ahh, the post.

New Zealand Post suspended all mail to South Sudan “until further notice” after Covid hit in 2020. It never reinstated the service, and an outbreak of fighting in April – the reason Yor is so desperate to get his mother out of the country – means the post is even more unstable.

“It’s not just me,” Yor says. “It’s all South Sudanese people. It just means more delay and more expense.” And the longer he has to wait, the more danger his mum is in.

Abann Yor says getting paperwork to South Sudan is more complicated and expensive because of the NZ Post suspensions. Photo: Supplied

It’s not just South Sudan either. There are 34 names on the list of countries where NZ Post can’t or won’t deliver mail. Some are in conflict (or potential conflict) zones: Russia, Ukraine, Iran, Yemen, Western Sahara, Kosovo, North Korea. You can see why mail might be disrupted. Some are in places where planes just stopped flying early on in the Covid lockdowns – mail to Laos, the Bahamas and Bermuda stopped in March and April 2020. But global trade is back up and running. Why can’t NZ Post send mail to Morocco or Bermuda, Botswana or Laos?

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There are also 24 mainstream countries unexpectedly on the list of “countries we currently can’t receive from”, including Chile, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Jamaica, Mexico, the Philippines, Taiwan and Turkey.

All these stem from mid-2020. In May that year, NZ Post told Stuff 29 countries had stopped sending mail to New Zealand. With the grounding of 95 percent of passenger flights, which carry most mail around the world, there was just no way of getting post here, a spokesperson said.

That’s no longer the case, but 24 countries remain on that list. 

A spokesperson told Newsroom the suspension list was “regularly reviewed, alongside our airline partners to confirm any suspensions are valid or if they can be removed”.

Is it likely the post will come back?

“At this time we have no indication as to when service might resume to these countries, however it is our goal to ensure that we are servicing as many countries as possible, and where we can we will restore service.”

By total number of countries, one quarter of the world’s nations are impacted by the NZ Post suspensions, although the NZ Post spokesperson said the impact was small – less than 2 percent of NZ Post mail went to and from these destinations, even pre-Covid, even if you include Russia and Ukraine.

Write for rights

Across the city from where Abann Yor leads Aotearoa Resettled Community Coalition, Oliver Hoffmann is also frustrated that NZ Post has withdrawn mail services to so many countries, and without telling people.

Hoffmann has been an active member of not-for-profit organisation Amnesty International for years. He’s written hundreds of letters to world leaders, often in countries with repressive regimes, asking for prisoners of conscience to be released.

“I thought when you posted a letter, it went to the destination, wherever you were in the world, and wherever you were sending it. But that, surprise, surprise, turns out not to be the case.”
– Richard Green, Amnesty International

Amnesty has had many successes over the years, where political prisoners have been released because of international pressure. Even when that doesn’t happen, hearing people are writing letters on their behalf can provide a glimmer of hope for prisoners.

Even in these days of email and social media, Hoffman (and Amnesty letter writers all over the world) often choose ‘in-an-envelope-with-a-stamp’ correspondence over other communication.

“The handwritten letter has tremendous power in the digital age,” the Amnesty International NZ website says. “By flooding the offices of the powerful, we have been able to release or improve conditions for more than a third of those we have campaigned for during Write for Rights over the years.”

But over recent months, Hoffmann noticed NZ Post started sending letters back, including letters from Russia, Morocco and Eswatini, the former Swaziland. The letters were stamped “return to sender”. Although they had not left New Zealand, some letters took four months to be returned.

Human rights abuses in Eswatini include the arrest and torture of political activists, and gender-based violence. Photo: Supplied

Richard Green is a founder member of the Auckland Amnesty International group Hoffmann is also a member of. The problem with the NZ Post outgoing suspension list is it contains so many of the countries with regimes likely to be unfairly imprisoning people, he says.

He says it was a shock when the letters began coming back.

“I thought when you posted a letter, it went to the destination, wherever you were in the world, and wherever you were sending it. But that, surprise, surprise, turns out not to be the case.”

Margaret Taylor, Amnesty International’s Aotearoa community manager, heard the news about the suspensions from members. She calls it “devastating”.

“When hundreds of boxes of letters arrive on a government’s doorstep or at the prison gate, it is much harder for authorities to ignore or inflict injustices. NZ Post has a valuable role to play in facilitating this international scrutiny.

“That’s why we’re calling for urgent new ways to collaborate with government, airlines, and other services, to keep these channels of communication open to New Zealanders.”  

The mail coach fords the Ōtira river in the 1880s. Photo: Te Ara

The mail must go through 

Amnesty International aside, the biggest problem for NZ Post – and postal services around the world – is people just aren’t sending letters any more. Through the 2000s and 2010s, letter volumes in New Zealand plunged from 1.5 billion a year, to just under 240 million, according to NZ Post figures.

The days when travellers picked up their mail in far-flung ‘poste restantes’ are pretty much gone, however romantic the memory. Meanwhile, many people in countries on NZ Post’s ‘outgoing’ list probably don’t trust government-run postal systems anyway.

Still, that developed world vision of postmen and women battling the elements to get mail to its destination remains.

An inscription above the historic former main post office building in New York carries the informal motto for the US mail service: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

It comes from a description by Greek historian Herodotus about the famous ancient Persian mail service, which almost 2500 years ago delivered mail throughout the empire using skilled horsemen.

The inscription above the former NY post office celebrates post workers getting the mail through no matter what. Photo: Getty Images

One thing that still remains of a time when mail was critical for global trade is the Universal Postal Union. The UPU was established in 1874 in the Swiss capital Berne and is the second oldest international organisation in the world. 

Think of it as the United Nations of postal services, a forum for cooperation between postal services in 192 member countries (basically the whole world) with a mandate to “ensure a truly universal network of up-to-date products and services”.

Green reckons NZ Post’s suspensions could be in breach of the Universal Postal Convention.

“All 192 countries signed it, and its laws are binding on all the countries, obliging them to deliver and to receive mail.

“They are obviously reneging on their contractual obligations. And nobody knows it’s happening.”

Hidden from view

That’s another thing that frustrates Green: the fact it seems NZ Post has kept the suspensions quiet – no one even at Amnesty head office knew letters sent to so many countries would be heading into the void, rather than world leaders. Even people at Green’s local post office had to look up the countries involved, he says.

Search the NZ Post website and it’s easy to find lists of countries where you can ostensibly send mail. There are 220 of them in various zones: Australia, Pacific, North America, Asia and “rest of the world”.

There’s no mention of any suspensions.

Finding that information is more difficult. Neither Green, his colleagues, nor Newsroom were able to locate the right page on the NZ Post website, despite some detailed searching. It was only after consulting media and helpdesk staff that the relevant pages came to light.

The url – – is hardly intuitive.

The price of progress

An intriguing part of the story is that though 32 of the 34 countries on the “can’t send to” list cannot be reached using NZ Post economy mail, 13 can receive NZ Post’s express mail service.

Marketed by the company as “our fastest option with tracking and signature”, express mail is expensive. The minimum price to send a document to Zone E (‘the rest of the world’) is $106, according to the website. That’s a lot, compared with the $3.80 stamps Hoffmann and Green put on their economy post letters to foreign powers.

From July 1, prices are going up – and the more expensive the service, the more it seems prices are rising. Economy mail to ‘the rest of the world’ rises 20 cents to $4, but express mail goes up more than $10 to $116.80, according to the website. 

Of course, costs are rising, and NZ Post, as a state-owned enterprise, is expected to make a profit. Could its decision to suspend economy post to so many countries be simply a pragmatic move to scrap expensive-to-run, low volume routes, using Covid and conflict as the justification?

“I know of no other enterprise that gets away with  taking customers’ money, then refusing both service and refund. It is surely a breach of New Zealand law?”
– Richard Green, Amnesty International NZ member

Absolutely not, NZ Post says. Or only a little.

“Cost was never the sole consideration – and in no situation was this the only reason for suspending a service,” the spokesperson told Newsroom..  

“This is only taken into consideration alongside service performance. For example, there were several scenarios over Covid where our cost/freight rates more than quadrupled and saw a significant degradation in service – however it was the service performance that drove the decision, not rates.

So how come there are places where express mail can get through, but economy mail can’t? 

That’s because the two systems are quite different, the spokesperson says. NZ Post’s economy and courier products are regulated through inter-country relationships and membership of the UPU, and are delivered by the destination post in each market – for example Australia Post or the UK’s Royal Mail.  

But the express service is run as a commercial courier service, which doesn’t go through the postal channel. 

“This is why there are sometimes differences between where we can and cannot offer differing services.”

No service and no refund

All of which gives Amnesty’s Richard Green no comfort at all.

Richard Green says it hasn’t been easy to get to the bottom of the NZ Post mail suspensions. Photo: Supplied

Green is reluctant to let NZ Post off the hook and has contacted CEO David Walsh, as well as the Universal Postal Union, and Consumer NZ. 

The latter follows an attempt by Amnesty members to try to recoup the money they have spent on stamps to countries they didn’t know NZ Post had suspended services to.

“NZ Post told me ‘We do not give refunds’,” Green says. “I know of no other enterprise that gets away with taking customers’ money, then refusing both service and refund. It is surely a breach of New Zealand law?”

Nikki Mandow was Newsroom's business editor and the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Business Journalist of the Year @NikkiMandow.

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