Branko Marcetic: The Tragedy of NZ family separations at the border

Branko Marcetic: The Tragedy of NZ family separations at the border

It might not spring from the same intentions as Donald Trump’s policy, but New Zealand is currently pursuing its own version of the “outright cruelty” of US border separations for families. Writer Branko Marcetic details the Covid border policies that are separating families, leaving many in traumatic limbo.


These holidays, after a hard year, families around New Zealand are getting together for beach trips, bach visits, drinks and barbecues, hugging and toasting to the fact that while they may have lost jobs or businesses, they still have each other. This may well be you. Hopefully it is.

But as we celebrate the close of this diabolical year with the people most precious to us, spare a thought for those in our country who, thanks to a cruel mixture of government policy and inaction, will see the year out alone and apart from their closest loved ones. These are the at least hundreds of Kiwis, residents, and visa-holders who remain separated from the partners and children they haven’t physically touched for at least the past nine months. This family separation has left husbands, wives, and children trapped, in many cases, across thousands of miles of land and ocean, their finances dwindling and encircled by a raging pandemic.

Yes, family separation. Those words conjure the image of state-sanctioned sadism by armed bureaucrats in the United States, ripping children from the arms of mothers and dividing wives from husbands at the behest of a racist demagogue. So heinous is this practice, virtually our entire political establishment — from the Greens to National’s Simon Bridges and Labour’s Kelvin Davis — condemned it at the time.

“A family is a family and in my opinion families should be allowed to stick together,” Davis said in 2018. “To me it’s cruel. It’s outright cruelty.”

But the uncomfortable truth is that families are not being “allowed to stick together” in New Zealand today either, because of government policy overseen by Davis’ own party.

Many would no doubt take issue with this framing. Trump after all, did his family separation intentionally, and made clear he was sending a message to migrants. The Ardern government’s family separation, by contrast, is simply an unhappy accident, a byproduct of the harsh but necessary border restrictions in place since March.

For the government, it may be an important distinction. But for those who have waited months to hold those they love the most and have been denied even a vague idea when they may be able to again, the result comes out the same: “outright cruelty.”

For all the praise the government has deservedly gotten over the past year, its policy regarding returning Kiwis has been as shambolic and confused as its pandemic response at home has been capable and assured. Migrants field contradictory advice from representatives of Immigration New Zealand, who seem as unsure about border policy as the people calling. Border exemption applications are denied again and again with only bureaucratic pablum as explanation, if any at all. The government eases restrictions for new rounds of migrants while those with visas predating Covid remain inexplicably locked out. Success and failure seems arbitrary and varies by case officer, turning the process into a lottery.

That’s just the half of it. And worst of all, there’s no end in sight, the families suspended in limbo, with the government resolutely declining to provide the families with any kind of timeframe.

These are people like Justin, who moved to New Zealand with his wife of several years in February 2019 on a PhD scholarship. Despite being a nurse, living in the country for 10 months, owning a car that she continues to pay insurance for, and holding a visa valid until March 2023, Justin’s wife found herself stranded in Switzerland while visiting her parents at the start of the year. Now, the two are in an impossible situation: she’s been repeatedly denied a border exemption on the basis that she isn’t an “ordinary resident,” while for him, leaving the country to be with her means being permanently locked out and losing his scholarship. Yet after going on more than a year apart, with no idea of when it might be over, leaving may well be what Justin is forced to do.

“At some point you have to put a cut-off date,” he says. “We keep pushing it back. We said September, then we said December, but now we’re saying if March next year nothing happens, I’ll seriously consider leaving.”

They’re people like Shankar, a New Zealand citizen who works in the forestry sector and has called New Zealand home since 2010. Shankar married his architect wife in 2019 in a culturally arranged marriage, with her receiving her partnership-based visitor visa just days before New Zealand closed its borders in March, separating them ever since, and running out the clock on the validity of her visa. After being rejected four times for a border exemption on the basis that Shankar was still in New Zealand, he has now taken work off and travelled to India to collect his wife and save his marriage, with the hope she will be approved to come through in the time he’s able to be overseas. It’s a hope not available to those at workplaces with less generous leave policies than Shankar’s, and may still be thwarted by the fact that the couple have not lived together under the same lease.

“This is a group that has been left behind, but the government doesn’t give a damn,” he says.

Frustrating as they are, these are not even the worst cases. According to IntoNZ immigration consultant Katy Armstrong, who surveyed separated families earlier this month, of the 733 family members she counted trapped overseas, 514 are partners with children, nearly double the number of partners alone in the same situation. Many are people like Marius Weyers, who haven’t placed a hand on their newborn children for nearly a year or longer — or, in some cases, ever. These parents are missing out on the crucial bonding time that civilised societies like ours consider so critical, we legally require employers to pay their workers to stay home for it.

The stories gathered by Armstrong are replete with such human tragedy. The typical account goes something like this. First, a family makes the gut-wrenching decision to sell their home and most possessions, leave behind family, friends, jobs, and lives, and move here. Having obtained a New Zealand work visa and job, one spouse moves to New Zealand, sometimes just before the borders closed, sometimes far earlier, and often in industries where the country has a crucial skills shortage. The family, which could mean a spouse and a child, a spouse, multiple children and pets, and everything in between, waits patiently to get the official go-ahead from the government to come over, and maybe does in the end get it — only for the borders to close. Now, the family is trapped in their home country, jobless, homeless, and often where the pandemic is raging and the economy is shot.

Months and months go by, as do anniversaries, birthdays, and crucial childhood milestones: first words, first crawls, first steps. The family is now forced to keep two households afloat on a single income, burning through their savings and even the proceeds from selling their home and belongings, money that was meant to help them start off stable lives here in New Zealand. Sometimes, the money runs out. The stress and anxiety takes its toll, with both the adults and, particularly, the children developing mental health issues, that manifests in physical symptoms and behaviour: sleeplessness, crying, mood swings. “Trauma,” “suffering,” “nightmare,” “unbearable” — these are some of the words that appear again and again in these accounts.

A version of this happened to David Louw, who moved here from South Africa in April 2019, found a good job, and secured visas for his wife and two young children. He sold his house and car in South Africa, and his wife sold her business, only for the family’s move to be derailed by the border closure by the margin of only a few days. Now, nine months later, David is barely managing to pay for two households, living as cheaply as possible in New Zealand while his stranded family makes do in a cottage on a rural property his in-laws live and work on, a situation that is not only unsafe, but unstable, with the farm’s impending sale potentially set to make the family homeless all over again. Meanwhile, for months, his kids have been socially isolated and missing school, and if and when the family is ever allowed into the country, David worries what kind of effect the constant stress will have on his kids.

“They’re constantly upset,” he says. “When my children are here, they’ll have saucers for eyes, but once the adrenaline wears off, what am I going to be dealing with?”

Unfortunately, the New Zealand response to this months-long ordeal has been less than compassionate. When pleas to politicians haven’t been ignored, they’ve been answered with generic replies that assure families nothing will keep happening. Meanwhile, yet one more slap in the face as those separated from loved ones have had to watch foreigner after foreigner let through the border by the government: film crew, sportspeople, fruit-pickers, even the billionaires who own America’s Cup teams.

Even for those unmoved by the suffering being inflicted on families, there are major practical concerns for New Zealand. The random cruelty of the border policy means the country is not just missing out on revenue and vital economic stimulus — with potential taxpayers kept out and money being sent overseas to help stranded families instead of being poured back into the local economy — but is losing out on critical skilled workers in areas like health and education.

But there is also a question of what this means long-term for core rights of immigrants and Kiwis themselves. The crisis has seen some far-reaching, even disturbing developments take place with little questioning or public attention: rules suspended, visas effectively annulled, Kiwis’ legal right to be united with family eroded, and even citizens placed in the position of choosing between their loved ones and their country. Given the requirement for all those entering the country to submit to and foot the bill for two weeks of quarantine, there is no public health justification for this, and immigration authorities don’t even cite one while continuing to deny families from reuniting. We might look back on the swift negation of these norms and rules, with little pushback and flimsy justification, as one of the more disturbing legacies of the pandemic.

Fundamentally, though, the biggest question here is about what kind of country we want to be. There has always been a gap between what many New Zealanders aspire for their country to be, and what their political leaders actually do in their name, a gap that’s manifested in everything from climate and environmental policy to the state of our tattered welfare system. Jacinda Ardern and New Zealand are meant to be the world’s “anti-Trump,” an image that is, quite rightly, a point of pride for many Kiwis. But we can’t claim that mantle with a straight face when our government pursues its own version of the “outright cruelty” of Trump’s border separations.


Branko Marcetic is co-host of the podcast 1 of 200 and a staff writer for Jacobin magazine

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.