Coronavirus: Refugees' grief as pandemic tears family apart

Life in Hamilton is almost as good as it gets for the Gonzales family - former refugees from Colombia. Except for the fact their eldest children are stuck in COVID-19-ridden Ecuador. 

COVID-19 hit just as Jenny, 35, and Joanna, 30, were starting the asylum process, holding out hope that this would lead to them reuniting with the rest of their family in New Zealand. 

Meanwhile, the eldest son Giovanny, 24, who has refugee status in New Zealand, was trapped there just as the borders closed. 

"There's a lot of dead people; everything is in total lockdown,' said Giovanny. "The little money I have is almost finished and I am getting desperate, as there is no possibility of getting work." 

There's little he can do but wait for clearance to return home. 

Barbara Gonzales, 46, last saw her daughters two years ago, when together with her husband, Gabriel, 58, and two sons, Giovany and Thomas, they fled Colombia. 

The family had gotten caught in the crosshairs of rebel fighters who had extorted them for every cent that they had over a period of two years. 

Until this point life was good - they had been living on a small farm just outside of Bogota, ran a restaurant, and her two sons were award-winning dancers. Her daughters were grown and living with their own families. 

"We had everything to be happy they came and destroyed all of our life," Barbara said. 

She described one particularly horrific day when the rebel fighters came through the back door into their kitchen and held them by gunpoint. 

"They grabbed me; they screamed at my husband and my children," she said. "They reduced us to the floor and they pulled their big guns on us." 

Eventually, the family had nothing left to give. They sold some of their last remaining belongings - a fridge and a washing machine - to help pay for an $85 bus ticket to Ecuador. 

Gabriel left his wife and two boys in a safe place in Colombia and just prayed the guerilla members would not find them. 

After finding a job as a mechanic he saved enough to bring his family over - joining the thousands of Colombians who had fled from the violence in their home country. They applied for asylum; were eventually granted refugee status and in June last year were told New Zealand would be their new home. 

Barbara said the move to New Zealand came with a sense of mixed emotions. 

"I feel so grateful because I have my family here, but I am still thinking when am I going to see my daughters again?" 

She said New Zealand gave her sons a future they would never have had in Ecuador. 

Where once they looked over their shoulders in fear, they are now looking to the future. The youngest, Thomas, wants to run a dance academy and be a police officer. Meanwhile, Barbara wants to improve her English and become a social worker, to help others in the same situation as her family. 

It is a happy ending that refugees across the world can only dream of, as the the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR and the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) has suspended the departure of refugees indefinitely - for all but a handful of the most critical cases. 

New Zealand is an idyllic place for refugees to rebuild, their first port of arrival the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre. There they get medical checks, mental health support, English classes and anything else needed to help them settle here. 

Refugees can also quarantine there. But till the first resettlement flights begin taking off again, this will not happen. 

And as the intake moves out into their new homes; the multimillion-dollar centre will soon be sitting empty. 

New Zealand typically receives around 200 refugees every eight weeks - to an annual total of 1000. Most of these from Myanmar, Colombia, Syria and Afghanistan. 

This annual quota was set to increase in 1500 in July, with an extra 300 places set aside in the 2020 budget for their relatives. But only 795 of the 1000 arrived in the current intake. Those due to arrive in May remain offshore, and July's intake looks uncertain too. 

At least 1000 refugees destined for New Zealand - 40 of whom were due to arrive in March - are now stuck in limbo all across the world. 

But as New Zealand makes tracks towards normality - opening its doors to foreign film crews, engineers and others deemed essential to the economy - the question is if a similar exemption could, and should, be made for humanitarian reasons. 

Green Party Immigration spokeswoman Golriz Ghahraman said in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic it was important considerations were not given to the economy above all else. 

"Until all of us are okay, we are not going to be beating the pandemic," she said. "What it takes is someone in Government prioritising humanitarian migrants and refugees. 

"My hope is that refugees will not be moved to the bottom of the priority." 

The UNHCR and Immigration New Zealand said conversations were being had daily on how things could be done differently in the COVID-19 era. But neither were able to say how and when a pathway for refugee resettlement would be opened. 

In a statement given to Newshub Nation, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said the Government will bring in its quota of refugees when safety and border restrictions allow. 

The refugee situation is a humanitarian crisis that has been made worse by COVID-19's arrival in a number of refugee camps including those in Lebanon, and in Cox's Bazar - the largest refugee settlement in the world.

Asia-Pacific regional migration and displacement coordinator for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Ezekiel Simperingham said refugees were particularly vulnerable during the pandemic. 

"We hope and we request that as soon as resettlement starts up again, it starts to the same level it was before, and not an opportunity to decrease resettlement further," he said. 

"We think you can manage COVID and resettlement - it's not mutually exclusive."

But with no clear timeline around when border restrictions will be lifted, Barbara said her family feels torn between gratitude and grief. 

"Your heart is broken totally. We are in a beautiful country. We deserve this opportunity, but we have left families at home."