Bay of Plenty immigrants are experiencing heartbreak and frustration being separated from their families, with one dad not having seen his two young boys in more than 500 days.
Quintin Boshoff left South Africa in December 2019, in the hopes of giving his two children, Peter, 6, and Stefan, 3, a better upbringing.
His wife, Cindy, had already submitted their visa applications, handed in her notice to her job, and sold most of the family's belongings. They were planning to arrive in New Zealand soon after Boshoff.
But the Covid-19 border closures left Cindy, Peter and Stefan stranded in South Africa.
Boshoff, who works at Pacific Toyota in Mount Maunganui, was granted a 36-month essential skills visa. Being away from his family was getting harder as the days passed, he told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend.
"We are on 509 days," he said. "It is just getting harder and harder."
He was just one of 70 Bay of Plenty migrants who attended a candlelit vigil on Cameron Rd on Wednesday. Similar vigils were held in multiple town centres across the country.
The purpose of the events, organised by The Federation of Aotearoa Migrants (FOAM), was to highlight the struggles of migrants impacted by border rules.
However, a spokesperson for the Minister of Immigration said the Government was regularly reviewing immigration settings and making adjustments for border entry exceptions when possible.
The most difficult part of being apart from his family was missing special moments with his children and uncertainty around a timeframe.
"I am missing all those special moments that I don't want to miss," he said.
"I start to cry every time because they are actually hugging the phone, trying to get close to me.
"I understand why they put everything on hold, and I respect what they did for New Zealand," he said discussing the Government's Covid-19 response.
"But the uncertainty is the worst thing because we don't know when it is going to happen."
Boshoff was without a dad for much for his childhood. His dad died when Boshoff was 8 years old.
"I always promised myself I would never leave my children ... and at this stage, it feels like I did, because they are stuck alone without a father."
He said returning home to his family in South Africa was not an option, and living here was a "dream come true".
"I can't really give up. I have left my job in South Africa. We sold everything to be able to come over. It is a dream come true."
Pāpāmoa woman Edna Havenga has been separated from her two daughters for more than two years.
She said her two daughters, who are in their early 20s, were stuck in "limbo" in South Africa while they waited for their parents to gain residency.
Havenga had been living in Tauranga with her husband, Francois, and 15-year-old son since late 2018.
Her daughters, Emma, 22, and Sam, 34, recently graduated from university in South Africa.
They had no family connections to live with there and were financially dependent on their parents as they couldn't find employment.
And Havenga said they were not eligible for visas to come to New Zealand.
"My girls are not even allowed to wait with us. They are basically in limbo, they can't move on with their lives, they are newly graduated. And they have to hang in limbo around somewhere waiting to join us," Havenga said.
Emma and Sam were currently moving between houses of family friends throughout the country.
Being separated from her daughters was "devastating" for Havenga who was concerned for their mental health.
"We are extremely close so it is devastating for me. These are precious years for them - they are going through things, they need me and their brother."
Like Boshoff, she said returning to South Africa was not an option.
"We gave up our jobs, closed down our business in South Africa. Violent crime is huge there."
Havenga expressed gratitude for the security around Covid-19 in New Zealand but said she felt an obligation to speak out on behalf of other families who were split.
FOAM president Charlotte te Riet Scholten-Phillips said they wanted residency for those in New Zealand on temporary work visas and phased re-entry of people overseas separated from family in New Zealand.
"It is very slow, there are huge delays in processing residents visas.
"We are hoping to lobby the Government to give us what we really want."
A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi reiterated his message shared at Thursday's protest.
"The Government is mindful of the disruption caused to many, many lives and, where it can, it is putting in place solutions - within the constraints of Covid border controls."
At the protest, the minister also said that, as frustrating as current border restrictions were, they were helping to keep the country safe from Covid-19.
"The restrictions and New Zealand's managed isolation regime are what is allowing everyone in New Zealand to function in relative freedom and keep communities safe from the virus."
In a written statement to the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend, Immigration New Zealand border and visa operations acting general manager Jock Gilray said demand for the Skilled Migrant Category (SMC) and Residence from Work (RfW) had risen significantly over the past couple of years.
He said expressions of interest for SMC visas had been suspended since April 2020 due to Covid-19, however this was currently being reviewed.
Non-priority onshore SMC and RfW applications were currently being allocated from August 20, 2019, while priority applications were being allocated within two weeks.
"INZ continues to look for ways to ensure applications can be processed as quickly as possible while ensuring the appropriate level of scrutiny is given to each application," Gilray said.
He said residence applications took longer to process than other visa types as there was more at stake and there was greater scrutiny of each application.
Fees for New Zealand's main residence-based visas – SMC and RfW – ranged in price from $970 (including GST) to $2500. Applicants were also required to pay an Immigration Levy of $830.