COVID19: Indians holding New Zealand work visas stuck in limbo with heavy loans as borders still closed

Over 2,000 Indians who had travelled to India just before lockdown have been stuck here without a way forward. Pieces of their lives remain scattered over two continents, while their loans multiply

COVID19: Indians holding New Zealand work visas stuck in limbo with heavy loans as borders still closed

Ashlin Mathew

Twenty-nine-year-old Mohammed Razal fractured his ankle while working on a construction site at Hamilton in New Zealand in December 2019. Unable to take care of himself, he flew home to Kerala for three months. He was scheduled to return to Hamilton on March 23, 2020. Just three days before that, New Zealand shut its borders due to COVID-19 pandemic without any prior intimation. And on March 24, 2020, India closed its borders.

He has been stuck here since then despite holding a work visa. Razal had taken a loan of Rs 20 lakh in 2016 to pursue higher education to specialise in highway engineering after completing his civil engineering. He was working as a civil engineering technician in New Zealand and paying off his loan, taken from the State Bank of India. The interest on his loan is growing and in five months, the amount has touched Rs 1 lakh. “My work visa will end by September 2021 and then I will not even be able to go back. In India, I will have to work a lifetime to pay it off. Before the government announced the moratorium on loans, the bank called me every day. It was nerve-racking. At least that has stopped, but the interest has accrued,” said Razal.

COVID19: Indians holding New Zealand work visas stuck in limbo with heavy loans as borders still closed

New Zealand’s border closure on March 19 was applicable to anyone who was not a citizen or resident of the country. The ban was applicable to all countries and nationalities, but the partners and children of New Zealanders were allowed in. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had said that she was not willing to take a risk by keeping the country’s borders open, as the cases were coming in from other countries. The New Zealand government also advised New Zealanders against travelling anywhere overseas.

In June, New Zealand declared itself COVID-19 free, but the borders remain closed to foreigners. In October, New Zealand opened its borders to travellers between neighbouring countries, but insisted on a two week quarantine for travellers from Australia. On November 24, Ardern said New Zealand would need to reach a certain level of COVID-19 ‘herd immunity’ before border restrictions were significantly altered. She said her government was working through its immunisation strategy, which was centred around a COVID-19 vaccine.

This leaves more than 2,000 Indians like Razal, who happened to come to India just before the borders were shut, in a fix. Now they are all stuck in India with varying degrees of loans.

Swarna Rajeshwari, a Delhi resident, had mortgaged her parents’ home to fund her higher education. She went to New Zealand in 2018 taking Rs 19 lakh as loan. She came back in January because her mother suffered from kidney failure and she had to come to donate blood. The family has now shifted to Bangalore for her mother’s treatment. “I can’t do anything here as all my documents and undergraduate certificates are in New Zealand. My visa will end in September 2022 and I’m worried if I will be able to pay the loan back or my parents will have to sell their house. Several other countries such as Germany have opened up their borders,” said Swarna between sobs.

All of them have written several times to the New Zealand High Commission to get a conclusive response, but at most they get automated answers to their queries. Several of them had come to Delhi last week to protest in front of the High Commission at Chanakyapuri, but weren’t given permission to do so. They then protested at Jantar Mantar. They have been attempting to reach out to Members of Parliament in the hope that they would raise their concerns.

“We want the government to put our visas on hold and extend it as several of the visas have expired and some will expire soon. We hope they will listen to our concerns as our jobs are available once we reach,” said Ranjani Palanivel, who had come back in February as her parents had met with a severe car accident, which left her mother with a spinal fracture. She succumbed to her injuries in June 2020.

Jagdeep Singh Dhillon had gone to New Zealand in 2016 as his wife was there on a student visa. He had got his three-year work visa only in 2018. “My visa will expire in September 2021. We had come for one month in February because our parents wanted to see our daughter, who was born in November. We were scheduled to go back on March 23. In May, when I wrote to the authorities, they assured us that we would be called back. But now I’m doubtful. This is worrying as we spent almost Rs 25 lakh to go to New Zealand,” explained Dhillon.

As Dhillon was staying with his family in New Zealand, they had rented a house. He continued to pay Rs 25,000 per week as rent till June. After that he couldn’t afford to do so. “All the things in my house have been shifted to the homes of two friends. All my documents are still there. There are several of us from Punjab who are in a similar situation and have been protesting at Jalandhar, Ludhiana, and Delhi. I met Punjab MP Bhagwant Singh Mann with my request. He said he would forward it to the Ministry of External Affairs,” added Dhillon.

New Zealand has opened its borders for essential workers or for medical reasons. The government has stated that anyone coming to New Zealand must be coming for a critical purpose and they must request approval from the NZ government first. Travel must be for a reason that they think is critical and is on their critical purpose list. In case of most Indians stranded in India, their employers held their jobs for six months, while in certain cases they will still have their jobs if and when they go back.

National Herald wrote to the New Zealand High Commission in Delhi and Chennai, but got no response on the issue. This article will be updated if and when they respond.

Palanivel, who is a dentist and works as a health care assistant in New Zealand, applied for exemption thrice, but her visa wasn’t cleared. “I was scheduled to back in March with my family. I was there alone since 2018 and in January 2020 I got my family visa. My employer supported me both the times that I had applied for the exemption. It took 70 days for a case officer to be allocated and then it was rejected. We have to pay fee for every application,” explained Palanivel. The application fee cost Rs 8,500 per person and it could go up to Rs 20,000 as it did in case of her husband.

Her case officer said she couldn’t travel with her family, but as her youngest child was only 4 years old, she informed them that she couldn’t travel without them. Her husband alone wouldn’t be able to take care of their three children, especially because her mother had also passed away. Additionally, there was no help from his family as they had married without the consent of their parents. Moreover, she can’t work in India as a dentist because all her documents are in New Zealand.

Several of those stuck in Kerala have approached Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Parliamentary Affairs V Muraleedharan in the hope of a solution. He was scheduled to meet them on Thursday, November 26, but it was postponed. “His office had given us an appointment, but due to local elections it was postponed. We are hoping to meet him this week. We will submit a memorandum,” said Razal.

All those stranded are still hoping that the borders will be opened soon or at least their visas would be extended.

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