A New Zealand resident who returned to Iraq to marry a distant cousin says "unfair" immigration partnership rules are preventing them from returning home.
Hussein Jabbar, 30, a barber from Howick, says an ongoing anti-government protest in Baghdad which has so far seen more than 320 protesters killed is also putting their lives at risk.
Jabbar married Zahraa Al-Bayati, 24, last September, and has been unsuccessful in three attempts to get a visitor visa for her to return to Auckland with him.
Despite the violence, Jabbar said he felt they are being "forced" to remain in Baghdad just to meet Immigration NZ's partnership visa "living together" requirement. Under current rules, couples need to be living together for a period of time to qualify under the scheme.
Nicola Hogg, INZ's border and visa operations general manager, said although Jabbar and Al-Bayati had provided evidence to show they were in a genuine and stable relationship, they failed to provide any proof that they had lived together in any stage.
"As such, Ms Al-Bayati's applications did not meet immigration instructions, and INZ was not satisfied that an exception to instructions could be granted," Hogg said.
Al-Bayati made two applications for a partnership visitor visa, first in September last year and another in February, but both were declined because she did not meet immigration instructions.
She then made an application in September for a general visitor visa, but it was also declined because INZ was not satisfied she was a genuine visitor.
"Based on the information provided, INZ was not convinced she would return home and abide by the conditions of her visa," Hogg said.
Jabbar and Al-Bayati, who are Muslims, said it was impossible for them to meet the living together requirement because their relationship developed only after he moved to NZ.
Also, Jabbar said it was against their religion and culture for them to live together before they were married.
"The rules are unfair, and it is causing a lot of stress for me and my wife," Jabbar said.
"Baghdad now is really dangerous, but we are being forced to stay here just so we can meet the requirements. We really want to return to the safety of NZ."
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Jabbar first moved to NZ on a work visa in 2014, but obtained his residence visa in 2017 and has since established his hairdressing business, Big Boss Barber in Howick.
Soon after moving to NZ, Jabbar started communicating frequently with Al-Bayati on social media, mainly through WhatsApp.
Love blossomed, he returned to Iraq to propose and their marriage followed.
"New Zealand is my home now and it is where I want to be with my wife, but INZ is making this impossible," said Jabbar.
He said they have been mainly house-bound because of the volatile situation, but he cannot bring himself to leave Iraq without his wife.
An Auckland-based relative, Zaineb Alkhafagi, said she too is worried for the couple and was hoping they could return soon.
"I make video calls to them every so often just to make sure they are safe and okay," Alkhafagi said.
She said it was acceptable in their culture to marry a cousin, but not to be living together until they were properly married.
Hogg said the onus was on applicants to ensure they met all visa entry requirements.
"While INZ appreciates that it is stressful for the couple, immigration officers must apply immigration instructions when processing visa applications to ensure the right decisions are made," she said.
Hogg said the fact that Al-Bayati and Jabbar are cousins was not a factor in the decision making process.
"All applications are assessed on a case by case basis against applicable immigration instructions," she said.
But Hogg signalled things could change after the Government announced last week of changes around partnership visas and culturally arranged marriages.
"New guidance has been issued clarifying that if an individual is travelling to NZ to join a partner after a culturally arranged marriage offshore, they may still be considered a genuine visitor visa applicant," Hogg said.
INZ is in the process of identifying affected partners who were declined visas between May 10 and Oct 31.
They will be invited to re-apply, and the fee for the new application will be waived.