Voices: New Zealanders just want to go home – why is Jacinda Ardern making that so hard?

·4-min read
Voices: New Zealanders just want to go home – why is Jacinda Ardern making that so hard?

On the morning of 24 November I woke up, rolled over to check my phone and burst into tears. I had received a message from a friend alerting me to the news that had come in overnight: New Zealand was opening its borders. I could finally go home. The relief was overwhelming. It felt like a hand I hadn’t even realised was there had finally released its hold on my chest.

It’s been nearly two years since New Zealand essentially closed its borders with the introduction of the Managed Isolation and Quarantine system. Two years since the option to go home – a human right, and a lifeline for expats – was ripped away from most Kiwis. Jacinda Ardern spent press conferences referring to those back home as the “team of five million” and urging people to “be kind”, while the one million New Zealanders who live overseas looked on in desperation, the message clear: you are not welcome here.

But... all was starting to right itself. Finally, there was a plan, a date to look forward to, a light at the end of the tunnel. I started searching for flights to New Zealand in February, desperate to have my family back together again, to catch a glimpse of the sweeping harbour of Tamaki Makaurau as I landed at Auckland airport, to feel the inimitable calm stemming from being in the place that raised you, the country where you were born, the land that will always really be home.

Cautious internal voices urged me to tread carefully, however, to wait until the new year to book flights, to not hold out too much hope. Thank God I did.

On 21 December I woke up, rolled over to check my phone and burst into tears again – but these weren’t tears of joy. The New Zealand Herald informed me the border reopening had been pushed back due to the new Omicron variant, with no firm alternative date provided. It felt like déjà vu, the gates slamming shut for a second time. Despondence began to creep in again.

This time feels worse than before. It’s been two years since most overseas Kiwis have been able to hug their families. It’s hard to express the mental toll that takes on a person – the constant uncertainty, the tearful FaceTime calls, the human desire to simply be near the people that you love.

My sister was diagnosed with cancer last year. My parents managed to put their lives on hold and get flights to come over in July 2020. Somehow, I thought I should count myself lucky for this – my family was going through something no family should ever have to go through, yet I was grateful that it meant at least a few of us could have a hug in person. That is the impact this system is having. It somehow makes cancer seem like something to be appreciated. How messed up is that?

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Except in the worst-case scenario, you may not be able to get home. The Facebook group Grounded Kiwis recently obtained government data under the Official Information Act outlining how many emergency allocation spots had been approved in the period 1 July 2021 to 6 September 2021: just 7 per cent of applications for those suffering the death of a close relative were approved; only 10 per cent of people with a terminal illness themselves were allowed to go home. My sister was finally able to move back to New Zealand in November after finishing chemotherapy. She was lucky in the lottery that decides our right to go home.

For the second Christmas in a row, just four of our five family members will be able to be together. This time, I’m the odd one out. The concept of hugging them all in February was getting me through. Now I just feel spent. I’m sick of shouting about how angry I am, I’m sick of writing articles and letters and telling the devastating stories of those who have been locked out of their country for months and years. I’m sick of watching athletes, pop stars and international DJs get coveted spaces over the average citizen.

I want to hug my family and be near the people I love. I just want to go home.

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