Charlotte Bellis wrote:
My name is Charlotte Bellis and I am from Christchurch New Zealand, but based in Afghanistan.
You might know me for being that Kiwi journalist who asked the Taliban in their inaugural press conference; “what will you do to protect the rights of women and girls?”
What no one has known, until now, is that I conceived a little girl a week after that press conference.
She found out she was pregnant in Qatar, where it is illegal to be pregnant and unmarried.
With Jim stuck in Kabul, we made a plan to keep everything secret until I was safely out of Qatar and try to get an MIQ spot in New Zealand. I immediately started playing the MIQ lottery, waking up at 3am and staring at my computer, only to miss out time and again. I resigned from Al Jazeera in November, losing my income, health insurance and residency. …
Then, some relief. The Government announced that New Zealand would open to citizens at the end of February. The timing was perfect. I would be 29 weeks pregnant and could get back in time for our little girl’s birth in May. Foreigners would be allowed in from the end of April, so Jim could be there for the birth too. We booked flights home and found a midwife in Christchurch.
So all was okay so long as the Government kept its word.
The problem was the only other place we had visas to live was Afghanistan. I organised a meeting with senior Taliban contacts, “you know how I am dating Jim from The New York Times, but we’re not married, right?” “Yes, yes we respect you both and you are foreigners, that is up to you.” I nervously continued. “Well, I am pregnant and I can’t get back into New Zealand. If I come to Kabul, will we have a problem?” One translated for the other and they smiled. “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.”
When the Taliban offers you – a pregnant, unmarried woman – safe haven, you know your situation is messed up.
Think about that sentence. A pregnant Kiwi had to rely on the good graces of the Taliban as she couldn’t get home.
Soon after, the February border reopening was “delayed” and the lottery suspended. We were devastated. There was no way home other than to apply for emergency MIQ spots. We had read the horror stories of pregnant women being rejected, seen the statistics of just 5 per cent of Kiwis being approved if they are unable to stay in their current location and only 14 per cent being approved if there is a risk to their health and safety. We talked to Grounded Kiwis and lawyer Tudor Clee, who agreed to take our case pro bono and had a track record of helping pregnant Kiwis stuck abroad.
Those stats are a disgrace.
Between Jim and I, we submitted 59 documents to MIQ and Immigration NZ, including a cover letter written by our lawyer summarising our situation.
On Monday, 24 January, we woke up to an email. We were rejected.
Bellis is a New Zealand citizen. She should not have to beg to be allowed home, especially when she is pregnant.
I had tried to prepare for this day. I thought I would cry, but I was in shock. I had done everything they asked. What was the threshold? What more can I do? How did they want me to prove that giving birth was a scheduled, time-critical medical treatment? Did they want me to be induced so there was a firm date? And how to prove that Afghanistan did not offer the same maternity care as in New Zealand? I thought about sending them a story I did in October at a maternity hospital in Kabul where they had no power so were delivering by cell phones at night. They couldn’t do caesarean deliveries and the only medicine they had were tabs of paracetamol wrapped in crinkled newspaper. The hospital staff said even those would run out in a month’s time. The UN wrote recently that they expect an extra 50,000 women will die during childbirth in Afghanistan by 2025 because of the state of maternity care. Note “extra” – the total will be closer to 70,000.
Here, getting pregnant can be a death sentence.
The inhumanity of MIQ.
But then the issue made it way to Chris Hipkins’ office and Hipkins realised the incredibly bad look this was, so he got the decision reversed.
While Jim and I still have not been approved to return to New Zealand, I will not sit in Kabul, hopeful they will slide us through the back door of MIQ. They rejected us, like they have so many thousands of other desperate New Zealanders, and seemingly, because of who we are and the resources we have. They have quietly overturned their ruling and are now “reviewing our application”.
The Minister intervened because Bellis is a globally famous journalist. But what about all the other pregnant women out there locked out by this Government?
The decision of who should get an emergency MIQ spot is not made on a level playing field, lacks ethical reasoning and pits our most vulnerable against each other. MIQ has set aside hundreds of emergency rooms for evacuating Afghan citizens, and I was told maybe, as a tax-paying, rates-paying New Zealander, I can get home on their allotment. Is this the Hunger Games? Pitting desperate NZ citizens against terrified Afghan allies for access to safety? Who is more important – let’s let MIQ decide.
The comparison to The Hunger Games is very apt.
I am writing this because I believe in transparency and I believe that we as a country are better than this. Jacinda Ardern is better than this.
I’ve got bad news for you!
The morning we were rejected, I sobbed in my window overlooking Kabul’s snow-covered rooftops. I wasn’t triggered by the disappointment and uncertainty, but by the breach of trust. That in my time of need, the New Zealand Government said you’re not welcome here. It feels surreal to even write that. And so, I cried. I thought, I hope this never happens again. I thought, we are so much better than this. I thought back to August, and how brutally ironic it was, that I had asked the Taliban what they would do to ensure the rights of women and girls. And now, I am asking the same question of my own Government.
Pleased that Bellis will be able to come home and hopefully safely deliver her baby. Sad that so many others remain locked out by this Government.