How trying to do the right thing got me stuck in the UK

According to the Immigration New Zealand website on 6 April 2020:

“Australian citizens and permanent residents who normally live in New Zealand can also return to New Zealand. They can make a request to Immigration New Zealand to undertake this travel. This process will provide this group of people with certainty that they can travel to New Zealand rather than risk being denied boarding flights to New Zealand.”

When I read it, I wasn’t expecting any problem. I thought it was a formality so that I could go home. I’m an Australian citizen. I settled in New Zealand in 2009, I bought my home in New Zealand in 2013, I run a business in New Zealand, I volunteer in New Zealand, and my social support network is in New Zealand. I’ve lived in New Zealand legally for over ten years. New Zealand is my home.

The problem is, I’m a seafarer. I work as a deck officer in the Merchant Navy, and it’s completely normal for me to be away from home for months at a time. Little did I know that that would lead to me being considered a non-resident in the country I call home.

The saga started in February 2019 when my employer made my entire crew redundant and flew us home from South Korea. I tried to look on the bright side: it was a good opportunity to study for my captain’s certificate in the UK, then go and volunteer on the Africa Mercy, a hospital ship in West Africa.

As so often happens, it didn’t go as planned.

I flew to the UK. My exam application was returned to the wrong country. By the time I got it back, there were no available exam dates before I was due to join the ship. It wasn’t a big problem, I just booked an exam in mid-January 2020, a few weeks after I was due to leave Africa Mercy.

When I passed my exam, I thought life was looking up, but yet again the authorities returned my paperwork to the wrong address. It wasn’t worth making a fuss about, so I arranged to complete some extra courses while someone found my paperwork and sent it back to me.

By 20 March 2020, it was all under control. I had my paperwork, and I’d passed all my courses. I was looking forward to visiting relatives in the UK for a few days, then going home. My flights were booked, I was packed. But the timing was terrible.

Cancelled flight followed cancelled flight as countries closed their borders, refusing transit. The New Zealand government advised New Zealanders overseas to get home ASAP, but by then there were no options left. I gave up, resigned myself to getting to know my aunt and uncle better, and settled in for the long haul. At least had somewhere safe to stay.

“The New Zealand government is negotiating for a second daily flight from Europe.”

The passing comment in a newspaper jumped out at me: if they’re negotiating a second daily flight, I reasoned, it means that there must be a first daily flight! I found it, and booked a ticket.

Checking the Immigration New Zealand website was an afterthought. Reassuringly, it said the same thing I remembered:

“Australian citizens and permanent residents who normally live in New Zealand can also return to New Zealand.”

Without another thought, I got on with packing.

When I arrived at the airport, it was deserted. At least there were no queues.

The first hint I had that there might be a problem was at the check-in desk. The assistant called to a colleague, “Hey, that Australian flying to New Zealand is here.” The colleague got on the phone.

That was not a good sign.

After a long phone call, they explained that I couldn’t board the flight because I wasn’t a permanent resident, so I wouldn’t be allowed to enter New Zealand.

I’ll give full credit to the Qatar Airways staff: while I was reeling in shock, they were very kind — from a safe distance of at least two metres.

They took care to check that I had somewhere safe to go, offered to arrange transport to wherever I was staying, explained how to apply for an exemption, and told me exactly how to sort out my flight once I had the exemption.

“This flight’s running daily until the 16th of April, so you’ve got a few weeks to sort it out,” they reassured me. “Our job is to get you home.”

Through the buzzing in my ears, I managed to remain polite, firmly reminding myself that it was neither their fault nor their decision.

I sent the application for an exemption while I waited for my uncle to pick me up. It’s a short form, and a few minutes later I received an email assuring me that my application had been received and they’d process it within a few days.

I sent an explanatory message to the friend who was going to deliver my car to the airport so I could drive myself to my self-quarantine address without contaminating anyone; another message to the person who had offered to do my shopping while I was in quarantine. They were as shocked as I was, but reassured me that it would probably be sorted out quickly. I’d be flying home in a few days. I agreed. Surely this was just a temporary hiccup, and I had until the 16th to sort it out. Plenty of time.

I believed that, at least, until Sunday night, the 5th of April. I checked my email one last time before bed and found this message from Immigration New Zealand waiting for me:

“Your request to be considered under the COVID-19 travel ban exception process has not been successful. The New Zealand border remains closed for all unless an exception is made for critical travel and unfortunately we are unable to make an exception in your case. There is no right of appeal regarding this decision.”

So, that’s it then. Despite what it says on the Immigration website, Australian citizens who normally live in New Zealand cannot return to New Zealand. Even if New Zealand opens the borders at the end of the month, I have no control over whether there are any flights home, and I have no right of appeal to find out why.

In this crazy, fast-changing world, I try to focus on the things that are going right in my world:

  • I’ve got a safe place to stay;
  • I’ve got friends who support me;
  • I’ve got a chance to spend quality time with my relatives; and
  • I didn’t burn the banana bread.

Banana bread is delicious with Nutella. The fact that I have Nutella, the ingredients to make banana bread, and a kitchen to cook it in are yet more reasons to be grateful.

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