Tongans who have overstayed and cannot return home due to damage from the January volcanic eruption are applying to the government for short-term work visas.
Parts of the island nation were completely wiped out or left largely uninhabitable when the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted, triggering a tsunami.
The disaster is estimated to have cost Tonga $175 million, nearly a quarter of its GDP.
This means that many of the approximately 2,500 Tongans who have overstayed in New Zealand have remained stranded and are also supporting family back home who have also been caught up in the Omicron outbreak.
“The whole village is wiped out, including our own house, our family home,” says a Kanokupolo couple who 1News are calling Sione and Mele to protect their identities.
“If we go back, I have nowhere to go. It will be difficult for them to share with us all that they have shared with us.
The couple are in their 30s and overstayed in 2019 when Sione’s work visa as a carpenter was denied.
His work experience was not accepted by Immigration New Zealand but by New Zealand employers, which 1News verified.
They have made repeated attempts to have their status legalized and are currently working under the table to earn enough money to be sent home.
Immigration New Zealand says it is aware of the situation of Tongans who overstay and is assessing each individual’s situation on a case-by-case basis.
However, immigration lawyer Richard Small said it was a blanket no to all of his tsunami-affected overstay claims.
“This behind-closed-doors approach seems inaccessible…and impervious to political scrutiny,” he told 1News, adding that he believed that needed to change.