COVID-19: Post-study work visa holders lives in NZ on hold after being 'locked out' from returning

The lives of many temporary visa holders are still in limbo.
The lives of many temporary visa holders are still in limbo. Photo credit: Getty

It has been almost a year since the Government took the unprecedented step of closing New Zealand's border - a decision that has barred people with a legal right to live and work in the country from returning to their lives.

On March 19, 2020, it was announced that New Zealand's border would be closed to anyone who was not a citizen or permanent resident, in a bid to protect the country from the exacerbating pandemic. At 11:59pm that night, the order was enacted - leaving the lives of temporary visa holders in limbo.

One group affected by the ongoing border closure are those holding a post-study work visa. On this visa, people who completed an acceptable qualification in New Zealand are eligible to remain in the country for one to three years and work for any employer in almost any role, depending on the type of qualification obtained and where the individual studied. It also allows the individual's partner to apply for a work visa, and dependent children are able to study fee-free as domestic students. 

For post-study work visa holders who were overseas at the time of the announcement, the border closure has dealt a particularly crushing blow. Despite having a legal right to live and work in New Zealand - and holding a multiple-entry visa - they are unable to re-enter the country, as they are neither citizens nor permanent residents. Many had built lives in New Zealand - they paid rent, they worked, they owned cars, they paid insurance, and they contributed to the economy. The future they had envisioned - securing their dream job, or obtaining crucial work experience - was snatched away. 

With no word on when people can expect the border to reopen, that future is feeling more and more out-of-reach. 

'It is so painful, it is inexplicable'

"I love the work culture of New Zealand… I wanted to gain exposure and invaluable experience. That is what I had signed up for. It all seems so blurry now," Chestha Arora, a post-study work visa holder, told Newshub.

Chestha travelled from New Delhi, India in July 2018 to study in New Zealand. She obtained a Graduate Diploma in Marketing at NMIT in Nelson and was granted a post-study work visa in 2019. In February 2020, she returned to India to visit her family due to personal reasons, and booked a return flight for March 31. The trip, which was meant to last roughly six weeks, has now turned into a tortuous year of frustration, desperation and "inexplicable pain". 

"I was locked out," she told Newshub. "When the borders closed, [anyone] offshore was just banned from entering. The saddest part is they didn't even give us a few days to return."

As she had been working at Countdown when the pandemic hit, Chestha made several attempts to secure an exemption to the border restrictions as an essential worker, but her efforts were futile.

Now, Chestha's possessions - including her car, her expensive electronics, luggage, cards and other important documents - remain in New Zealand. She also continues to pay a number of expenses to maintain her life in New Zealand - a life she has not lived for more than a year.

"My expenses include my car rego, insurance, phone, card bills," she said. "I know more post-study visa holders who are still paying their rent, [paying for] storage."

Additionally, the moratorium period on a loan Chestha took out two years ago has expired - meaning she is now required to make fixed payments.

"I am worse hit because of my loan. And now, along with other inevitable expenses, I am paying its sky-high EMIs with its exorbitant interest."

Chestha said her parents spent a significant amount of their savings to send her to New Zealand, suggesting they are not in a financial position to help.

"I am not even earning anything. I am not earning a single penny," she said. "It is so painful, it is inexplicable."

Over the past year, Chestha says she has completed a few certificate courses in digital marketing, but did not actively seek work due to the severe spread of COVID-19 in India. Although case numbers have dramatically reduced compared to last year, the rates have risen again this month, with 18,599 cases recorded on March 7. More than 11.2 million cases have been recorded to date. 

Chestha says she doesn't want to risk taking a job in India if she is to return to New Zealand. With her visa set to end in 2022, she is hopeful she will still have time to resume her "normal life" - however, unless she obtains another qualification, she will not be able to renew her visa past its expiration next year. 

According to Immigration New Zealand, a post-study work visa may only be applied for once - unless the visa holder completes a second higher qualification at Bachelor's degree level or higher.

For people with a post-study work visa who had roughly a year left at the time of the border closure, that means they have missed out on a year of experience if they are now stranded overseas - and are unable to renew the visa to make up for lost time.

In a statement to Newshub, Kirsty Hutchison, the policy manager for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) Immigration (Border and Funding), said "no decisions" have been made on whether these visas will be extended.

"Their current visa expiry remains at this stage," she added.

Chestha says roughly a "few hundred" other post-study work visa holders are currently stuck in India in similar circumstances - including her friend, Loveleen.

Speaking to Newshub, Loveleen echoed Chestha's claims, saying the plight of post-study work visa holders required urgent Government attention.

"We have spent tens of thousands of dollars on our education in New Zealand. We earned our visas," she said. "There are so many of us who continue to pay certain expenses in New Zealand while being offshore. We have to pay back our loans along with their exorbitant interests and we are not earning anything.

"We plead the Government to consider letting us back in."

On May 27, 2020, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the Government would prioritise "those who have been separated from their lives in New Zealand" and "those who have a legal right to work or study here" to re-enter the country.

However, Chestha says there has been no official communication with post-study work visa holders and "absolutely no clarity" on their situation. After almost a year-long wait, she says it's clear the Government is not prioritising the return of visa holders with a legal right to live and work in New Zealand.

"We just want the Government to not forget us and their own words - that we will be prioritised," Loveleen said.

Who can enter New Zealand?

At the time of writing, only citizens and permanent residents are permitted to enter New Zealand. On arrival, all returnees are required to complete 14 days at one of the country's managed isolation and quarantine facilities (MIQ) before they are able to integrate with the community. During that time, new arrivals will undergo routine testing to ensure they are not infectious with COVID-19. A list of other people who are able to enter New Zealand can be found here.

Although applications for most temporary visas are currently suspended, offshore applications can still be made for visas that are relationship-based or for those who are invited to apply as they serve a "critical purpose", among others.

Some exceptions have been introduced, says Hutchison. These exemptions take into account "the benefits to New Zealand’s economic, social and humanitarian objectives" and the impacts on MIQ capacity.

Hutchison told Newshub that some temporary visa holders are exempt from the border closure if they have "strong links to New Zealand" or are students in the middle of their studies.

"Border exceptions have been introduced for temporary employer-assisted work visa holders who were offshore when the borders closed, but are still employed and have strong ongoing links to New Zealand," she said. 

"Many of these visa holders and their families have lived in New Zealand for years and have built lives here with the expectation and hope they would be able to stay longer-term."

She noted that if someone has critical skills, a New Zealand employer can apply for a border exception on behalf of that person under the 'other critical worker' category. 

However, MBIE cannot provide "any certainty" on when current post-study work visa holders may be able to enter the country, she said.

"While we understand the disappointment and challenges the border closures have had on many people, we are in the midst of a global pandemic, which requires strict border restrictions," she continued. 

"Offshore visa holders will need to consider their options based on their personal circumstances, and the level of uncertainty they are comfortable with."