Covid 19 immigration headache: South African family ditch New Zealand dream after pandemic delays residency hopes

A South African family are giving up on their dream of a new life in New Zealand after Covid-19 dashed their hopes of quickly gaining residency in their adopted country.

Deon and Lee-Ann van Elst moved to Auckland from Johannesburg two years ago so they could raise daughter Brigita, 9, in a country with less crime and more educational opportunities.

But the family’s future has been in limbo since Immigration New Zealand suspended Expression of Interest (EOI) applications for New Zealand residency amid the escalating Covid-19 crisis last year, Deon van Elst said.

“We just got to the point where it’s not cool to live with uncertainty. So we thought before that turns into negativity we’d rather just see [the last two years] as an adventure.

“Because there’s many lovely things we’ve enjoyed in New Zealand.”

The family emigrated under his skilled migrant visa, with Lee-Ann also able to work and Brigita enrolled in school near their rental home in Silverdale.

A senior media specialist for online vehicle listings marketplace Driven, owned by New Zealand Herald publisher NZME, van Elst wanted to get New Zealand work experience before lodging an EOI to apply for residency before his 40th birthday in April last year, after which he’d be eligible for fewer age-based points in favour of residency.

EOIs are an initial application to Immigration New Zealand indicating a wish to apply for residency, which can then take place if the EOI is accepted.

But while EOI applications can still be made, processing of them has been suspended since April 1 last year.

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi hoped to have more to say around residency and EOI applications soon, a spokesman for the minister said.

The Government has been under increasing pressure over its immigration settings, in particular those seeking residency but also migrant families who have been split up since the border closed to non-residents.

Demand for the skilled migrant and residence from work categories had risen significantly over the past few years, and there were 11,331 EOI applications in the pool awaiting selection as of Thursday, the minister’s spokesman said.

For skilled residence applications – those who’ve had their EOI selected from the pool and have submitted their residence application – there are a total of 13,160 skilled migrant category and residence from work applications to be allocated for processing, the spokesman said.

Those are still being processed for people already in New Zealand, with priority for those whose jobs required them to be registered or who earned twice the median wage, but because applications were paper-based lockdowns had caused delays as offices were closed.

“Immigration NZ is working to process applications as quickly as possible.”

He and his wife knew residency was never guaranteed when they came to New Zealand, van Elst said.

“But we weren’t given the opportunity to apply and that’s probably the one bitter part …
it’s a bit sad because we do feel we would’ve added value to the New Zealand society.”

While they’re entitled to remain living and working in New Zealand, their visa status prevents them from getting a mortgage to buy a house in Auckland’s ever-increasing market, van Elst said.

“The rate that house prices are increasing you worry that maybe we’ll have to move to a new area and [Brigita] has to move to a new school and that’s not ideal for her either.

“You get promised there’ll be an announcement, and there’s not, and eventually you get to the point where it’s a bit difficult having this constant uncertainty. You can’t put down roots and as you get older you have less energy to set up [a new life] in a new place.”

They also worried about having to move Brigita at a more crucial time in her schooling if their eventual residency application was declined, he said.

They’d now start over in South Africa and focus on saving enough money to send Brigita to an overseas university, if she wanted.

The family sold their Johannesburg home when they moved to New Zealand, so will live in their former holiday home in Nelspruit, a city of 100,000 people about 400km east of Johannesburg.

Nelspruit’s crime rate is lower than Johannesburg’s and while their New Zealand-based South African friends were supportive, some were shocked, van Elst said.

“There were certainly some who thought that [we were insane to go back].”

He didn’t know any South Africans who’d permanently returned to their homeland from New Zealand.

“But the container company I’m using, they said this is the first time in their life that they’ve seen seven containers heading [to countries outside of New Zealand] and one heading in … the person said to me ‘it’s normally many more coming in than going back’.”

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