MIQ ruling leaves pregnant Kiwi journalist stuck in Afghanistan

Source: 1News

A pregnant Kiwi reporter based in Afghanistan is stuck in limbo as a result of Aotearoa’s MIQ lottery.

It comes after an Aucklander, who heard about Charlotte Bellis' plight, offered her an MIQ voucher he no longer needed to use. But the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), who oversee MIQ, say it’s not possible to transfer a voucher.

Bellis, who is 25 weeks pregnant with a girl, explained her struggle to get back into Aotearoa in an open letter on the NZ Herald on Saturday after being denied an MIQ spot last Sunday.

She has been based in Qatar for the past two years while working for Al Jazeera and was told she would never be able to conceive a baby.

The news of her pregnancy meant Bellis wanted to return to New Zealand because it is illegal to be pregnant and unmarried in Qatar. But the New Zealand Government says her situation is not critical.

Bellis and her partner, Jim Huylebroek, applied for an MIQ spot while in Kabul in Afghanistan last Sunday and woke up to two rejection emails on Monday.

Having fled Qatar, Afghanistan is the only place they have visas to live.

She said she’d spent the week prior getting documents ready for the MIQ application, “getting letters from obstetricians and everything compiled, from bank statements, to proof of residency, proof of our relationship and travel itinerary".

The rejection was based on the application being outside 14 days and it wasn’t time critical.

“I don’t think it takes rocket science to know that New Zealand and Afghanistan do not have equivalent healthcare,” Bellis told 1News on Saturday.

Bellis and Huylebroek even reached out to the Taliban for help.

Bellis organised a meeting with senior Taliban contacts asking them if they knew that her and Huylebroek, who works for the New York Times, were dating.

She said the senior Taliban officials respected that the couple are foreigners and would welcome them in Kabul if they told people they were married.

"No we're happy for you, you can come and you won't have a problem. Just tell people you're married and if it escalates, call us. Don't worry. Everything will be fine," she recalls them saying.

"When the Taliban offers you - a pregnant, unmarried woman - safe haven, you know your situation is messed up," she wrote in the open letter.

An offer of help from New Zealand, denied

Matthew Mountfort lives in Auckland’s Epsom. ACT Leader, David Seymour is his local MP, so Mountfort contacted him to try and arrange to transfer his MIQ voucher to Bellis.

He had booked a flight to Dubai on February 8, to return on February 26. Bellis was hoping to get back to New Zealand on February 27.

But Mountfort cancelled the trip due to the Omicron outbreak and wants to transfer his MIQ voucher to Bellis.

“Instead of letting my voucher go to waste, I wanted to give it to someone in critical need,” he told 1News.

“I saw Charlotte Bellis’ story and it really resonated and I feel there needs to be a pragmatic way a transfer can be made from somebody who is relinquishing their voucher to somebody who desperately needs one,” Mountford said.

“I had a genuine reason for cancelling my trip and Charlotte has a genuine need to come home. There’s nothing dubious about such a transfer."

Seymour says he’s appalled at the lack of compassion from the Government.

"The Taliban’s shown more compassion for Charlotte Bellis so far than the Government of New Zealand. You couldn’t make this up,” Seymour said.

Bellis told 1News she could not thank Mountford enough for his offer.

“I haven’t really been that emotional, like I’ve been like, no I have to fight and have just been more in action mode, but then when people are really lovely, the humanity that comes out triggers me and I start crying.

“I just can’t thank that person enough."

MIQ head Chris Bunny told 1News, “while we appreciate the sentiment, vouchers are non-transferrable".

"Once a voucher is secured, people cannot change anything on the voucher which changes the identity of the traveller. This is to prevent creating a secondary market in which vouchers can be traded or sold," he said.

Care for pregnant women in Afghanistan incomparable to NZ

Bellis says she has a midwife in Christchurch where the couple are hoping to return to and an obstetrician in Auckland who she has been speaking to.

“But I don’t have any care here in Afghanistan," she said.

“I was meant to have blood tests in the last week or two which we haven’t been able to get. If we can get back into New Zealand, we can play catch up and check everything is fine.

"The number of stories I could tell you about maternity care in Afghanistan…The UN said just recently they expect an extra 50,000 women to die over the next three years, giving birth here.

“That takes the total up to 70,000 women, which is unfathomable in itself. But for the [New Zealand] Government to say ‘no stay in Kabul, I’m sure the healthcare there will be just fine’ – shows complete disregard for the wellbeing of your citizen,” Bellis said.

MBIE told 1News that pregnancy "is not considered an emergency under the emergency allocation criteria but certain conditions during pregnancy may mean that the high bar for an emergency is met".

"The criteria - Category 1a could apply to someone who is pregnant if they require access to time-critical medical treatment which has been scheduled in New Zealand and is unavailable or inaccessible in their current location."

Bellis understands travel is unsafe for pregnant women over 35 weeks and says she doesn’t want to be in Afghanistan after 30 weeks.

“If she comes early, there is no premature care here really, it would be kind of ‘wrap her in a blanket and say a prayer.’

“I couldn’t live with myself if she died because of that,” Bellis said.

She says the only backup plan is to go to Huylebroek’s home country, Belgium.

“But I would be an illegal overstayer by the time she is born,” Bellis said.

Bellis says following the MIQ denial, the next step is filing a judicial review via their lawyer.

“We’ve put Crown Law on notice that we intend to file,” she said.

“I will be here until at least 30 weeks or until the New Zealand Government lets me enter.”

Bellis’ message to the Government is to “please just use common sense”.

“They just need to use their brains and their hearts and think, ‘this person is a New Zealand citizen’.

“At what point did we get so bogged down in these rules we’ve come up with that we can’t see that she’s a Kiwi in need of help and she needs to come home?” Bellis said.

“What do they expect me to do? I have done nothing wrong. I got pregnant, I am a New Zealander, I was kicked out of one country because I would have faced prison," Bellis said.

“And the only other country I could stay for any decent amount of time was Afghanistan.”

“I hadn’t mentally been prepared for having children in the first place, I’d written it off,” Bellis said.

“And then to get pregnant and now to be on this rollercoaster….the transition to having to be in this fight, and then it’s really taken away from the joy of it. I feel like I’m in survival mode."

“I can’t think about what colour to paint the nursery, instead I’m seeking affidavits and letters of support to come home.”