Agnes Chackochan, a 27-year-old from India, received her post-study work visa in January 2020, after completing her studies at Waikato Institute of Technology in Hamilton.
She travelled to India in February for her wedding and was scheduled to return to New Zealand in March, but pushed her return flight back to April after a family emergency.
On March 19 2020, New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the country’s borders would close to anyone other than citizens and residents at midnight that day.
Temporary visa holders who had left the country, like Chackochan, were unable to return.
“Our visas were simply wasted without being used”
Chackochan’s visa expired last January – six months before the country is due to fully reopen its borders.
“Our visas were simply wasted without being used,” she said.
Vivek Sharma, whose post-study work visa expired in December 2021 said he had, like many other offshore visa holders, left all of his belongings in the country – including his car, which he claims “rusted on the street” – believing he would soon be returning.
As of November 2021, there were over 5,000 post-study work visa holders offshore.
Migrant advocacy groups, which also represent non-graduates on other temporary work visas, have taken to protesting in the streets in India and New Zealand, and campaigning on social media to draw attention to what they call New Zealand’s ‘discriminatory’ immigration policies.
Some of those affected are also upset that they were unable to apply for New Zealand’s one-off residence visa.
The scheme, announced in 2021, enabled post-study work visa holders who had been in the country for three or more years to apply for permanent residency, but applicants had to hold a current visa and be in New Zealand when they applied.
“They never thought in their wildest dreams that they would be paying a heavy price just for boarding a flight,” said Sonia Nair, who travelled to India for a holiday during her MBA in 2020.
Other countries have honoured visas that expired during the pandemic: in November 2021, Australia extended temporary graduate visas to September 2022 and will soon allow offshore visa holders impacted by border closures to apply for replacement visas.
“We appreciate there are people who have been affected by New Zealand’s border closure,” said Andrew Craig, immigration manager at New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment.
“There are no plans to extend or renew the temporary visas of people who are currently unable to travel to New Zealand because of our border restrictions.
“As our border reopens, people whose visas have expired while they’ve been outside of New Zealand can apply for a new visa to return once the relevant visa category reopens.
“They will need to meet the criteria at the time they apply for a new visa for their application to be successful.”
Last month, the New Zealand government announced changes to its post-study work rights policies, including removing them altogether for those enrolled in non-degree level courses, with a small number of exceptions, and limiting the length of post-study work opportunities.
“Former international students who have skills that New Zealand needs and an offer of employment may be eligible for a work visa once applications open on July 4,” said Craig.
“We are going through the toughest period of our life,” said Chackochan. “We regret choosing New Zealand for our higher education and a settled life.”