For months, Antony Paine has been trying desperately to get home to New Zealand to celebrate his daughter’s 21st birthday.
The problem? Paine, who works as a teacher in the United Arab Emirates, is effectively barred from returning to his own country under New Zealand’s contentious quarantine lottery.
Despite being double-vaccinated with both the Pfizer and Sinopharm jabs, Paine cannot come home unless he secures one of about 4,000 spots in the country’s oversubscribed managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) system.
Paine has made three failed attempts to book a spot in time for his daughter’s birthday in March. The closest he has gotten is 1,023rd in the queue.
“My passport clearly states my right to return home at any time, yet this right has been blocked by the MIQ system,” Paine told Al Jazeera. “I simply can’t come home because there is no room for me in MIQ, despite my vaccinated status.”
Paine said he voted for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government but has been left disillusioned by the treatment of overseas New Zealanders.
“Once we knew eradication was not an option it was time to allow Kiwis back home to their loved ones, especially those vaccinated and coming from low-case countries,” he said.
Paine is among the thousands of New Zealanders stranded overseas under some of the harshest border rules being implemented by a country against its own citizens.
The limbo for overseas citizens was extended on Tuesday after the government announced it would delay plans for a phased return of quarantine-free travel from January until at least the end of February to allow authorities to study the Omicron variant.
Minister for COVID-19 Response Chris Hipkins said keeping Omicron out of the country for as long as possible was necessary as “how sick it makes people and the impact it has on health systems is not yet fully understood”.
The variant is more transmissible than other strains, although it has been associated with mild illness in South Africa, the country where it was first detected, which on Tuesday reported 35 COVID-19 deaths in a population of 59 million people.
An MIQ spokesperson told Al Jazeera the government wanted everyone who wished to come home to be able to do so, but “in a safe, managed way to help stop further spread of COVID-19”.
“New Zealanders can still come home but they may not be able to travel on the dates they would prefer,” the spokesperson said. “In periods of high demand, some people will miss out on securing an MIQ voucher, regardless of the system that is used.
More than 200,000 New Zealanders have returned home through the MIQ system since it was set up. People overseas who have been unable to book a place in MIQ and who need to travel urgently can apply for an emergency allocation provided they meet set criteria.”
New Zealand has relied heavily on strict border controls to manage the coronavirus, reporting just 49 deaths during the pandemic, one of the lowest rates in the world. But the country’s isolation has inflicted a heavy toll on overseas New Zealanders, who account for one-fifth of the country’s 5 million citizens, and has drawn growing criticism amid easing travel restrictions in other parts of the world.
As of September, 232,045 out of the 394,918 registered users of the quarantine booking system had failed to secure a place, according to figures obtained by the opposition National Party, which has branded the system a “Hunger Games-style lottery”.
‘Inhumane and unfair’
One New Zealand citizen who is trying to relocate home from Brisbane, Australia, with her two children told Al Jazeera she would be homeless from January after signing over her lease and selling her belongings in anticipation of the border reopening.
“I’m living in an empty house with just a mattress and fridge and our suitcases,” said the woman, requesting anonymity. “I will spend Christmas alone with my children as I have told them Santa is taking everything to New Zealand as there was no point to do it here if we are going to New Zealand in the next fortnight.”
The woman, who described the current system as “inhumane” and “unfair,” said she had little faith she would get home after 10 failed lottery applications and two unsuccessful attempts at applying for an emergency allocation online.
“The stress of trying to return home has caused a massive decline in my health resulting in weight loss, reduced sleeping and anxiety,” she said. “I really fear for myself and children’s safety with having nowhere to go.”
For some overseas New Zealanders, the situation has caused them to reassess their view of their country and fellow citizens.
Kerry Wilkinson, who lives outside Melbourne with his fiancée and children, told Al Jazeera he was shocked at the unsympathetic attitude of many of his countrymen.
“They’ve been very dismissive of the rights of citizens overseas,” said Wilkinson, who has not been back to New Zealand since March 2020. “I only see this ending once Covid is prevalent throughout the country and New Zealand is then no different to everyone else.”
Wilkinson, who does not want to put his two young sons through quarantine, said he had missed out on many important family events and worried about the health of his mother, who was diagnosed last year with breast cancer.
“I missed my grandmother’s 90th. No one in my side of the family has met my youngest son,” he said. “I don’t know how many years my mum has left. We can’t stay in MIQ as a family with two young sons. That’s the equivalent of child abuse. With our job commitments, we want to be able to visit New Zealand and return to Australia.”
Paine, the teacher in the UAE, said the government was creating “discord and turning Kiwis against each other.”
“The New Zealanders I work with and know over here have been shocked at the government’s lack of consideration for those abroad and concerned about the vaccine,” he said. “Many have gone from very proud Kiwis to a sense of shame at our representation.”