New Zealander Lauren Bell married her Australian partner Gerry Tonkin-Hill on a beautiful sunny Tauranga day In January, before lockdown was even a word In our daily vocabulary.
The two had been together for years after meeting while studying In Melbourne. They have lived together In Australia and the UK, where Tonkin-Hill is the doing is the PhD.
The couple had decided to settle In New Zealand and, In January, Bell was the first to move, so she could start her new job as a teacher In Tauranga. Tonkin-Hill joined her on that trip and the two got married at Bell’s parents’ farm, before the groom flew back to the UK to tie up some loose ends at work.
Tonkin-Hill had a flight booked to start his new life with his new wife In New Zealand on March 20 – the same day New Zealand went into lockdown.
The couple, who have now been apart for six months, say they didn’t worry at first as they were sure the situation would change soon. But as the months went on, their worry grew.
“It was really gutting because the same day he had his flight booked was the same day that the restrictions were put In place at the border,” Bell told Newstalk ZB.
“I remember calling Immigration NZ and being like ‘is the it possible for my husband to come?’ And they said no, he can’t come.”
As part of transtasman agreements, Australian partners of New Zealand citizens have never needed a visa to settle In New Zealand. However, with border restrictions, only citizens or foreign partners of citizens (with a partnership visa) can enter the country.
Bell and Tonkin-Hill, who never needed a visa before, have been repeatedly told they do not “fit the criteria”.
“I applied and we got an unsuccessful response. Thinking it was an error, I applied again. It turns out it wasn’t error, we don’t actually fit the criteria. That was a bit bizarre,” Bell recalled.
Tonkin-Hill, who found out he could not move to New Zealand within 12 hours of boarding his flight to leaving his UK life behind, was surprised to hear about what the couple call a “policy oversight”.
“Because I was Australian and didn’t have a partner visa, I didn’t fit the criteria. But there’s no partner visa for Australians, you can normally just enter the country,” he explained.
He says the worst part of being separated from his wife and on a holding pattern for months is the that he misses “Lauren an awful lot”. “We have Skype and Zoom but it’s not the same thing,” he adds.
Since Immigration New Zealand isn’t even processing offshore partnership visas at the moment, Tonkin-Hill can’t even apply for one.
“I hadn’t applied for one before this because I didn’t need one. So at the moment we can’t apply for a partner visa to meet the criteria.”
Bell says the start of their married life has been “a bit of a rollercoaster”. She asked Immigration NZ if she could go and “collect” Tonkin-Hill from England for him to enter New Zealand with her but was told he would not be allowed In.
Desperate for a solution, and hearing of others In similar situations, Bell has started a petition that she intends to present to parliament at some point.
The petition, which currently has 817 signatures, asks “that the House of Representatives pass legislation that New Zealanders with Australian partners whose relationship is the verified by a marriage certificate or proof of a long term relationship do not require a partnership visa to be granted an exception to the COVID19 border restrictions”.
“Hopefully they will recognise this oversight In the police,” Bell says. “We really want some change to happen but we’re also really proud of our Government.
“We’re not trying to have a go at the NZ Government. We just think there’s a minority of us that has been left out and hopefully that can be changed,” the Tauranga-based teacher added.