It was supposed to be a four-week holiday but nearly two years and a pandemic later, an Auckland family is still locked out of the country they call home.
"Our everything is in New Zealand," says Kulvir Kaur, whose post-study work visa expired in September.
Kulvir and his family are among the thousands of migrants who may never be able to return to their homes, jobs and possessions because they were overseas when a global pandemic broke out and closed the New Zealand borders.
From Patialia in India's Punjab state, Kulvir came to New Zealand in 2016 on an international student visa together with her husband Jagdeep Singh Dhillon. In the four years they lived in Auckland, she got her business diploma, had a stable job and gave birth to their little girl Avereen Kaur at Middlemore Hospital. "The best years of our lives," she said.
When Avereen was three months old, they took a four-week holiday to visit family in Patiala. They hadn't been back for two years and their parents would get to meet their baby girl for the first time.
They took off on a cloudy day in February 2020, their return flight booked for March 24.
On March 19, the New Zealand government made the decision to close its borders to anyone who was not a citizen or permanent resident.
The couple panicked, but thought it would be a temporary lockdown. All their belongings - furniture, appliances, clothing, important documents - were in their Papatoetoe rental home.
"We did not imagine how all of this would impact us. Our permanent home is in NZ, and we were just out of the country to visit family in India for a holiday."
Immigration lawyer Alastair McClymont says the New Zealand border closed at a peak travel period for Indian migrants, when many would take all their leave at once to visit family or get married.
"We had clients who had all of their family jewellery (in their NZ homes), given to them at marriage and handed down from generation to generation. The government response to them was contact your embassy or get a friend to send everything back.
"It's been 18 months now so a lot of them have had their visas expire, naturally."
Immigration New Zealand data shows there are 5390 post-study work visa holders offshore as of November 8, 2021.
A baby when she arrived, Avereen is now two years old and has spent most of her life in India. She is frequently ill with fever, has skin problems and food allergies.
Her parents' car remains parked in the street near where they lived in Papatoetoe. They continue to pay the car loan but someone had recently smashed a window and broken in.
The family lost their rental home last June because they could no longer afford the rent for a house they couldn't get to. Their things are stored here and there in the care of friends and an employer.
Kulvir was a machinist at a furniture maker and Jagdeep was a security officer in Auckland. They hold on to letters from their employers saying their jobs are waiting for them.
They have applied more than a dozen times for a border exception to enter the country under humanitarian grounds, all declined.
People considered to have a critical purpose for travel to New Zealand can apply for a border exception, including family of some temporary visa holders, critical workers or people needing to travel to New Zealand for humanitarian reasons.
Immigration New Zealand said the family did not meet the strict criteria, and the bar for humanitarian border exception requests is set high.
"Immigration New Zealand (INZ) empathises with the difficult situation Kulvir Kaur and Jagdeep Singh Dhillon and their daughter are in," said Jock Gilray, INZ acting general manager for border and visa operations.
Kulvir is doing some stitching at home but they are mostly relying on their retired parents and siblings to pay the bills. It has been difficult to find work in India because of the Covid economy, she says Indian companies need to see original documents when hiring, and theirs are all in New Zealand. She could get a friend to send them over, but she is worried about the expense and the risk of losing them in transit.
"Kulvir cries day and night and neither of us can sleep properly," said Jagdeep.
The New Zealand government has said it is not extending post-study work visas for people overseas.
"This is in line with the approach we've taken with other temporary visas where plans were disrupted by Covid-19, as these people only ever intended to remain in New Zealand temporarily and circumstances may have changed by the time borders reopen," said Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi in an RNZ report last month
"People who have gained valuable qualifications from study in New Zealand, and have been gaining useful work experience while offshore, can apply for work visas when the borders reopen if they have skills New Zealand needs," he said.
There is a fundamental disconnect between what the government says and what visa holders think, says McClymont, whose clients mainly come from India, one of New Zealand's biggest international student markets.
"Quite a lot of them borrowed a lot of money or sold their assets, so they feel they've been ripped off, conned."
Authorities take the view that international students came to New Zealand to get a qualification but students were sold on the promise of a potential pathway to residency, he says. "That's how they've marketed international study."
McClymont says the marketing is done primarily by offshore education advisors but he believes it is supported by government agencies.
"A lot of education fairs, like in India, they'll have reps from the schools, the education agent, Education New Zealand, and they'll have reps from Immigration New Zealand. They're all working in conjunction to promote a product that is the export education industry, using the ability to work post-study and obtain a potential pathway to residency."
INZ has received 1292 border exception requests from post-study work visa holders since Covid restrictions came into force in March 2020.
Immigration lawyer Aaron Martin says the legal options for this group of visa holders stranded overseas are very limited. "For many people it does mean the collapse of the New Zealand dream."
Kulvir's family have invested heavily in a better life here but have become what Martin calls "the unfortunate casualties of Covid-19 border closures".
"When you've been out of the country you can't hold on indefinitely, eventually you have to get on with life."
4pc of border requests approved
INZ received 1292 border exception requests across all categories from individuals who hold post-study work visas as of November 6. Fifty-three (4 per cent) were approved:
- 5 or less - Partner or dependent child with a visa based on their relationship to a temporary visa holder in New Zealand
- 5 or less - Partner or dependent child of a New Zealand citizen or resident
- 5 or less - Humanitarian reasons
- 7 - Partner or dependent child of a student or worker visa holder
- 7 - Person who normally lives in New Zealand and is the partner of a student or work visa holder
- 8 - Critical health worker
- 10 - Approved class of individual (priority returning degree and post-graduate students)
- 11 - Partner of a NZ citizen or resident