A man who worked to keep COVID-19 out of New Zealand has been barred from returning to the country he calls home after flying to India for his dying father's final moments.
Layeeq Baig, a DHB worker who has lived in Hawke's Bay for nearly six years, is urging the Government to change its rules to allow him and other stranded migrants back into the country.
He'd established life-long friendships there and was an active member of the community before travelling to Chennai last October to visit his father, who was on his deathbed following a COVID-19 infection.
After grieving his loss, Baig was shocked to learn he wouldn't be allowed to return home and was trapped in India. He says he was made to feel like a fool for not knowing what would happen when he left.
He has now been living and working in Chennai for more than nine months and faces the prospect of being locked out of New Zealand for good as the last few months of his work visa tick down and offshore visa applications continue to go unprocessed.
His request to return on humanitarian grounds has been rejected, and he is yet to hear if he'll ever be able to return to the life he's created on the North Island's east coast.
Stuck in India
Baig has worked hard to make Hawke's Bay his home in the years he's lived there.
A believer in the Gandhian philosophy of giving back to one's community, he became a board member for Hawke's Bay Young Professionals, the Hawke's Bay Multicultural Association and Napier Toastmasters.
"I have all my friends there, I've made some life-long friendships," he said. "I was serving the community... I was up and about, meeting a lot of people."
Baig is also a procurement specialist for Hawke's Bay DHB, and was part of the logistics arm of its COVID-19 response team during last year's alert level 4 lockdown - literally working to keep the virus out of the community.
"This included long hours and the weekends but it was the highest work satisfaction that I have ever had by contributing my skills and time in serving my community, by stepping up in the time of need," he said.
"When the Prime Minister cites us as a team of 5 million, I have never felt so belonged."
Feeling that he'd established a life in Hawke's Bay and wanting to make it permanent, Baig applied for a skilled migrant residency visa, which was accepted and awaited further processing.
But in October last year he was suddenly called back to India after his father became seriously unwell after contracting COVID-19, and was placed on a ventilator.
Baig was asked to return to say his final goodbyes. He flew over to Chennai on October 27, and was able to spend time with his father before he passed on.
However while Baig was still in the throes of his grief, he discovered to his great distress he'd be unable to return to the life he'd built in Hawke's Bay and was essentially trapped in India.
"When the border closed, temporary work visa holders who normally lived in New Zealand could not re-enter the country," Immigration NZ explained.
While a border exception allowed some normally resident visa holders back into New Zealand late last year, it only impacted those who'd departed New Zealand before October 9, 2020 - meaning Baig was unable to make use of it, as he'd left 18 days after that date.
"As Mr Baig left New Zealand after 9 October 2020, he did so with no guarantee of being able to return under current border restrictions," Immigration NZ said.
'It's the end of the road for me'
Baig says he had no idea leaving New Zealand to see his father would've seen him barred from re-entry, as his work visa was still in effect for another year.
"I thought I'd have to pay for managed isolation, I knew about that - but once I came back [to India] to settle everything down I realised it was too complicated, and pretty much I couldn't go back," Baig told Newshub.
He sought an exception to the border restrictions on humanitarian grounds on November 8, but his request was declined four days later as Immigration "did not believe his circumstances were exceptional enough to justify travel to New Zealand".
Baig's residency application was reclassified as offshore when he flew to India, meaning it would be processed after the onshore applications - a problem amid a backlog of tens of thousands of residency applications and the current pause on overseas visa applications.
Adding to his frustration, his work visa is unable to be extended until his residency application is processed. So in two months' time, when his work visa expires, it's "the end of the road for me to come back home".
"It's been quite difficult mentally," Baig said.
He urges the Government to be "more fair" to him - especially given his work to keep COVID-19 out of the Hawke's Bay community - and to put an end to the limbo he's in as uncertainty continues over where in the world his future lies.
"I'm still hoping that they recognise this and can be a little more compassionate and humane," he said.
"I never thought it would come to this desperate and helpless state even after living in Hawke's Bay for close to six years and still working for a Government agency, but I have to wake up to the harsh reality to now beg for a chance to come back home."
Baig says he'd truly thought of himself as a member of the Hawke's Bay community, but has now been made to feel "a fool to have left New Zealand to meet my dying father, a fool to have thought to belong to the Hawkes Bay community, [and] a fool to have thought to belong to the team of 5 million".
"Of all the years having lived and worked alongside some of the finest people in Hawke Bay, [it] perseveres my faith in humanity, fairness - and I ain't no fool. I just hope the elected Government hears this and does the right thing so that I can finally come back home."
He's since launched a petition in which he asks Immigration officials to make three changes to the current policy:
To extend the work visa of stranded immigrants who are currently employed with New Zealand organisations so that they can still work until the borders are opened for them to come back home.
To extend the work visa of stranded immigrants who have already applied for residency and are currently employed with their New Zealand organisations, so they can still work until the borders are opened for them to come back home.
- To extend the dates for 'Request to Travel' for Resident Visa holders who left New Zealand between 1 December 2019-9 October 2020, as it has been close to nine months since it was last updated.
Immigration Minister responds
Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi told Newshub he created the border exception last September to enable the return of work visa holders who were "overseas and have strong, ongoing links to New Zealand".
He says a final date of October 9, 2020 was selected to "prevent people from leaving and re-entering New Zealand multiple times, as this would increase pressure on our border and MIQ systems".
Faafoi says it is "highly unlikely" those who are still offshore would meet the criteria for the border exception, but encourages them to apply to enter New Zealand via the Other Critical Worker visa pathway.
However he warned it's bad news for Baig and other immigrants in a similar position.
"While the Government continues to review settings and make adjustments where possible ... there are no plans, at this time, to further extend offshore temporary work visas."
Baig acknowledges the Government's tough line on immigration during the COVID-19 pandemic has kept the virus out, and says he absolutely understands that "protecting the health of New Zealanders is paramount".
But he's hopeful there's a chance he may be able to return home soon.
"I only ask for a little more provisions for hard-working immigrants who are stranded to come back home, rather than hang them out to dry."