NOTE: Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins and Head of MIQ Chris Bunny respond below to points raised in this column.
My name is Charlotte Bellis and I am from Christchurch New Zealand, but based in Afghanistan.
You might know me for being that Kiwi journalist who asked the Taliban in their inaugural press conference; "what will you do to protect the rights of women and girls?"
What no one has known, until now, is that I conceived a little girl a week after that press conference. For years I had been told by doctors I would never have children. I threw myself into my career and made my peace with it. Now, during the fall of Kabul, a miracle.
I was deployed to Afghanistan by Al Jazeera from my base in Doha, Qatar. When I returned to Doha in September, I realised that I was a few days late. Impossible, I thought, I couldn't be pregnant, surely it was the stress of the last few months. But imagine if I was? It is illegal to be pregnant and unmarried in Qatar. Jim, my partner and a photographer for The New York Times, was in Kabul and couldn't get out. I couldn't get back into New Zealand. I went to a pharmacy with a cover story about buying a pregnancy test for a married friend and returned to my apartment. I took the test and called my mother in Auckland.
I was pregnant.
I made an appointment with a gynaecologist in Doha. At the reception, the first question they asked was "what is your name?" The second, "are you pregnant?" I froze. "Umm no, just here for a check-up?"
I asked the doctor, hypothetically, if I was pregnant, would you tell the police. She said "I won't, but I can't treat you and I can only say you need to get married or get out of the country as soon as possible."
With Jim stuck in Kabul, we made a plan to keep everything secret until I was safely out of Qatar and try to get an MIQ spot in New Zealand. I immediately started playing the MIQ lottery, waking up at 3am and staring at my computer, only to miss out time and again. I resigned from Al Jazeera in November, losing my income, health insurance and residency. I can't tell you the number of questions I got: Why now? Why are you leaving? It doesn't make sense? I clearly wasn't very convincing in my 'just time for a change' answers.
Then, some relief. The Government announced that New Zealand would open to citizens at the end of February. The timing was perfect. I would be 29 weeks pregnant and could get back in time for our little girl's birth in May. Foreigners would be allowed in from the end of April, so Jim could be there for the birth too. We booked flights home and found a midwife in Christchurch.
We pondered about where to wait. We flew to Jim's home country of Belgium, but I was not a resident. New Zealanders can only spend three of every six months in the Schengen zone and I had eaten through half of that by the time January came around. We wanted to keep time up our sleeves for an emergency, so decided to rebase. The problem was the only other place we had visas to live was Afghanistan. I organised a meeting with senior Taliban contacts, "you know how I am dating Jim from The New York Times, but we're not married, right?" "Yes, yes we respect you both and you are foreigners, that is up to you." I nervously continued. "Well, I am pregnant and I can't get back into New Zealand. If I come to Kabul, will we have a problem?" One translated for the other and they smiled. "No we're happy for you, you can come and you won't have a problem. Just tell people you're married and if it escalates, call us. Don't worry. Everything will be fine."
When the Taliban offers you - a pregnant, unmarried woman - safe haven, you know your situation is messed up.
Soon after, the February border reopening was "delayed" and the lottery suspended. We were devastated. There was no way home other than to apply for emergency MIQ spots. We had read the horror stories of pregnant women being rejected, seen the statistics of just 5 per cent of Kiwis being approved if they are unable to stay in their current location and only 14 per cent being approved if there is a risk to their health and safety. We talked to Grounded Kiwis and lawyer Tudor Clee, who agreed to take our case pro bono and had a track record of helping pregnant Kiwis stuck abroad.
We got letters from New Zealand obstetricians and medical experts to confirm the dangers of giving birth in Afghanistan and the impact of high stress during pregnancy. We included ultrasounds, letters in support of our relationship, bank statements, our Covid vaccinations including boosters, evidence of my resignation and our travel itinerary since. Between Jim and I, we submitted 59 documents to MIQ and Immigration NZ, including a cover letter written by our lawyer summarising our situation.
On Monday, 24 January, we woke up to an email. We were rejected.
Firstly, because our travel dates were more than 14 days out – something we did purposefully because flights are difficult to get out of Kabul and to give us time to appeal if we were rejected. And secondly, because MIQ said "you did not provide any evidence" that "you have a scheduled medical treatment in New Zealand", that it is "time-critical" and that "you cannot obtain or access the same treatment in your current location".
Our current location being Afghanistan.
It finished with: we have "deactivated your application".
I had tried to prepare for this day. I thought I would cry, but I was in shock. I had done everything they asked. What was the threshold? What more can I do? How did they want me to prove that giving birth was a scheduled, time-critical medical treatment? Did they want me to be induced so there was a firm date? And how to prove that Afghanistan did not offer the same maternity care as in New Zealand? I thought about sending them a story I did in October at a maternity hospital in Kabul where they had no power so were delivering by cell phones at night. They couldn't do caesarean deliveries and the only medicine they had were tabs of paracetamol wrapped in crinkled newspaper. The hospital staff said even those would run out in a month's time. The UN wrote recently that they expect an extra 50,000 women will die during childbirth in Afghanistan by 2025 because of the state of maternity care. Note "extra" – the total will be closer to 70,000.
Here, getting pregnant can be a death sentence.
So, we would fight. I would not give birth in Afghanistan. I was determined to leave by 30 weeks for fear of her coming early, in which case the treatment would likely be a warm blanket and a prayer. In Belgium, I would be an illegal overstayer without health insurance.
I called my lawyer and told him we need to appeal. I called Gemma Ross, a close friend in PR in Auckland and asked her advice, was it time we talk to the media? And, I talked to a politician I knew, complaining about how it didn't make sense, how we were preparing a legal response and to talk publicly about our experience. I understand Minister Chris Hipkins was then told of our case.
And this is where the story gets interesting.
On Wednesday, 26 January, I woke up to an unsolicited email from MIQ.
"We have reviewed your emergency allocation application ..." it began.
They asked for proof of Jim's immigration status. There was no mention of my application, although it was no longer deactivated, but "in progress" on the MIQ portal. I replied to the email stating Jim had applied for a Critical Purpose Visitor Visa and forwarded his communication.
On Thursday, 27 January, Jim woke up to an email from Immigration NZ.
His visa was approved and he could now apply for an emergency MIQ spot.
My lawyer who has represented nearly 30 pregnant New Zealand women declined by MIQ, has never seen such a turnaround. Why us? Should I be grateful that we appear to be getting preferential treatment and our case progressing after Minister Hipkins' office heard of an incoming political headache? I imagine them saying "just make it go away, give them the spots". I am not the first to experience such scapegoating of liability. My lawyer has taken MIQ to court eight times on behalf of rejected, pregnant Kiwis. Just before the case, every time, MIQ miraculously finds them a room. It's an effective way to quash a case and avoid setting a legal precedent that would find that MIQ does in fact breach New Zealand's Bill of Rights.
While Jim and I still have not been approved to return to New Zealand, I will not sit in Kabul, hopeful they will slide us through the back door of MIQ. They rejected us, like they have so many thousands of other desperate New Zealanders, and seemingly, because of who we are and the resources we have. They have quietly overturned their ruling and are now "reviewing our application".
The decision of who should get an emergency MIQ spot is not made on a level playing field, lacks ethical reasoning and pits our most vulnerable against each other. MIQ has set aside hundreds of emergency rooms for evacuating Afghan citizens, and I was told maybe, as a tax-paying, rates-paying New Zealander, I can get home on their allotment. Is this the Hunger Games? Pitting desperate NZ citizens against terrified Afghan allies for access to safety? Who is more important – let's let MIQ decide.
In some ways it feels like we are poking the MIQ bull with our case pending, but I feel compelled to speak out. As a journalist I have asked people in much more vulnerable positions to tell their story because - maybe - it will make a difference. Now it is my turn.
I am writing this because I believe in transparency and I believe that we as a country are better than this. Jacinda Ardern is better than this. I am writing this to find solutions for MIQ so that New Zealanders both at home and abroad are safe and protected. I write this for the people who send me messages every day: I need treatment, my father has months to live, I missed my loved one's funeral, I'm in danger, or my visa has expired, I have nowhere to go…
…and I've been rejected. I do not have a pathway home.
Our story is unique in context, but not in desperation.
The morning we were rejected, I sobbed in my window overlooking Kabul's snow-covered rooftops. I wasn't triggered by the disappointment and uncertainty, but by the breach of trust. That in my time of need, the New Zealand Government said you're not welcome here. It feels surreal to even write that. And so, I cried. I thought, I hope this never happens again. I thought, we are so much better than this. I thought back to August, and how brutally ironic it was, that I had asked the Taliban what they would do to ensure the rights of women and girls. And now, I am asking the same question of my own Government.
Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins responds:
A senior National Party MP contacted me on Wednesday with information about this case and the circumstances about their declined application, which appeared at first sight to warrant further explanation.
My office passed this information onto officials to check whether the proper process was followed.
I'm unable to provide any further comment on MIQ at this stage as a court case against MIQ is being prepared and expected to be heard soon."
Head of MIQ Chris Bunny responds:
Charlotte Bellis emergency allocation case
In the case of Charlotte Bellis, she applied for an emergency allocation MIQ voucher on Monday 24 January. The date she requested (27 February) was not within the 14 day window required for an emergency allocation (the travel must be time-critical). She received a response deactivating the application and inviting her to reapply within the 14 day window, and to contact MIQ if she intended to change her flights to return to New Zealand earlier. We have not received any subsequent confirmation that Ms Bellis intends to bring her flights forward.
We have a team of people who manage emergency allocation requests and the team keep a close eye on applications, and Charlotte's location of Afghanistan came to their attention. Thirty minutes after the initial decline email, they reached out to inform her that if she intended to change her flights to an earlier return date, that more supporting information would be required to process a subsequent application and they highlighted the evidence requirements. This is not uncommon and is an example of the team being helpful to New Zealanders who are in distressing situations.
It is not uncommon for people who have been declined an emergency allocation to reach out to a Member of Parliament. There are a lot of people in really difficult situations around the world. When anyone brings individual cases to our attention, we look into the case and the process that was followed. This is standard practice. There is also a process in place for people to seek reviews of their own applications.
All applications for emergency allocations of an MIQ voucher are assessed case-by-case, there is no preferential treatment – it is a fair and consistent process.
MBIE regularly evaluates its Emergency Allocations criteria and will continue to do so.
Emergency allocations process in MIQ
New Zealand's a small country—we'll all know people who have struggled to return home.
We want every New Zealander who's currently abroad who wants to come home to be able to do so. However, we want them to come home to a safe New Zealand, in a safe way. Over the last two years our managed isolation system has been what has kept New Zealanders safe.
MIQ has been a success for New Zealand, helping to safely bring more than 218,000 people here in the midst of a global pandemic, as well as care for over 3600 community cases.
Every month in managed isolation we accommodate the equivalent of a small New Zealand town - around 12,600 people in 9000 rooms per 28 days.
There is finite capacity within the MIQ system though, and that's for good reason – Covid-19 is still spreading around the world, and we need to keep New Zealand safe. We constantly have to strike a balance between bringing people into New Zealand and protecting us all from Covid entering the community.
We are seeing a large increase of Omicron cases at the border which means more rooms are needed for Quarantine. We are also monitoring the number of community cases, some of whom are required to come into MIQ.
Managed Isolation and Quarantine is aware that travelling around the world right now is not simple or easy and acknowledges that there are many people in really difficult situations as a result of this global pandemic.
MIQ has an emergency allocation process which exists for limited situations which require urgent travel to New Zealand within the next 14 days. There are currently 400 rooms per fortnight set aside for those who need to travel urgently. This is a last resort option with a very high threshold.
All applications for emergency allocation places in managed isolation are assessed on a case-by-case basis, against a set criteria. These decisions are not easy ones to make and we are sympathetic to the distressing situations people applying for an emergency allocation are in.
To be eligible for an emergency allocation, the applicant must be legally entitled to enter New Zealand and the travel must be time-critical (within fourteen days of their intended date of departure). Evidence is required to support all applications to ensure a fair and consistent process.
Right now, MIQ is under pressure like never before and we are currently experiencing very high volumes of emergency allocation requests due to widespread travel disruption around the world.
From 30 October 2020 to 23 January 2022, MIQ processed 8,863 completed applications and approved 5,396 applications for emergency allocations.
Emergency Allocation criteria and pregnancy
Pregnancy in and of itself is not considered an emergency under the emergency allocation criteria but certain conditions during pregnancy may mean that the high bar for an emergency is met.
The criteria - Category 1a could apply to someone who is pregnant if they require access to time-critical medical treatment which has been scheduled in New Zealand and is unavailable or inaccessible in their current location.
Category 2a allows people to urgently return to New Zealand to provide critical care for a dependent (i.e: their spouse/partner who is pregnant). To meet the 'critical care' requirement, an applicant's situation must be very serious, and no one else is in a position to assist the person that the application refers to.