A pandemic, a pregnancy and a political coup—and that’s just the beginning

Published Sep 21, 2020

You’re trying to get home but borders are closing, flights are constantly changing or being cancelled, the dates when airlines will resume routes are constantly shifting, and the policy today on what paperwork you need to enter or transit through a country may be different tomorrow.

You’re not sure what quarantine exemptions you need during transit, or whether the COVID-19 test you had before leaving will need to be repeated again during your journey home.

Or, maybe you’re pregnant and needing to get home before you’re not allowed to fly anymore, or your country’s military forces have just carried out a coup which is preventing you from returning.

These are just a few of the issues faced by some of the 81 international government scholars in Wellington who couldn’t return home due to the COVID-19 pandemic—and which are successfully being dealt with by the driving force behind their repatriation, Wellington UniVentures' New Zealand Programmes Team.

The team was in the middle of delivering the New Zealand English Language Training for Officials (NZELTO) programme on behalf of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade | Manatū Aorere (MFAT) when New Zealand first went into lockdown back in March. Of the 81 participants, 18 were on the 10-week NZELTO Africa programme, and 63 were on the 21-week NZELTO Asia programme.

“Normally, our pastoral responsibility ends when we see them off at the airport,” explains Jo-Anne Carley, who leads the New Zealand Programmes team. “But these are not normal times, so we’re staying in touch with them every step of the way until they are safely home again.”

She says that despite the challenging circumstances, she couldn’t be more proud of the way the team has risen to the challenge together. “Their sheer grit, and refusal to give up, means we’ve got 75 home already. They’ve literally worked through the night at times, and weekends, in order to provide 24/7 support for the scholars as they navigate their way home.”  

The fight for flights and accommodation

Getting them home mostly required a mix of commercial and repatriation flights—the latter arranged by each country’s government. But while booking seats on a repatriation flight might sound simple enough, Jo-Anne says it was anything but.

“There were few flights and even fewer seats,” she says. “If we were lucky enough to find a repatriation flight, it was nigh on impossible to get an entire cohort on the same plane. We asked each country group to work out who needed to get home first, and booked seats on that basis.” She says support from embassies and MFAT was vital to guaranteeing those bookings.

Getting the scholars to those repatriation flights posed another challenge—and often involved multiple commercial flights.

“We had to make sure connecting flights didn’t go over airport transit time limits, and ensure the scholars’ bags were ticketed all the way through to their final destination so they didn’t have to clear customs in intermediary countries,” says Jo-Anne. Cover for additional expenses—such as being escorted through airport terminals—also had to be arranged.

Tara Kennedy, the team’s Senior Administrator, says that they were infinitely grateful to have the support of the wider Victoria University of Wellington team at times like these: “Working out how to pay for flights, accommodation, visas etc., across different countries, currencies and organisations, was a real logistical challenge,” she says. “Sarah Lanigan, the University’s Team Leader Payments, was so incredibly helpful, making payments or lifting credit card limits overnight, and arranging SWIFT payments within hours. She even drove to the bank to get foreign currency for us when we needed it urgently.”

But as anyone who has travelled during the pandemic knows, getting flight bookings is still no guarantee of travel, due to constantly changing flight schedules, visa requirements and border closures.

A problem at the border in a middle-eastern country caused a change in flight route for one scholar, which meant that Rachel Honeychurch, co-ordinator for the NZELTO Africa programme, was still up at 1am trying to book new flights—before having to set the alarm for 5am to drive him to the airport!

Jo-Anne says that booking accommodation for transiting scholars was no easier than booking flights, as so many hotels had been taken over for quarantine purposes.

“We’d find out in the middle of the night that hotels who had advertised that they were open, were actually closed—or would say they were in the airport terminal, but were in fact only accessible if the scholars exited the closed airport—which they weren’t allowed to do. In Sydney, some of our transiting passengers were moved to a designated quarantine hotel outside our/their control. Every day brought a new challenge!”

She says that the team tried three times to find a hotel for two transiting scholars in Africa: “One was closed completely yet still taking bookings, another we suspected was a scam, and a third turned out to be a quarantine hotel in spite of us calling ahead to check that it wasn’t!”

Perfecting the paperwork

All of the difficulties around booking flights and accommodation were, of course, compounded by the extra health restrictions and visa requirements created by the pandemic.

“Two scholars checking in at Auckland Airport found out their 'direct' flight had a fuel stop in Australia—so we suddenly had to try and get them transit visas” says Jo-Anne. “Three of the team worked on this together, simultaneously form-filling and talking to Australian agencies knowing we had less than two hours to get the paperwork organised. It was such an incredibly tense time, but we pulled together so well as a team, and got it done.”

Chloe Gutterson and Alana Webster, team administrators, say they became adept, very quickly, at filling out 12 page application forms on the fly, although Chloe says that it was sometimes hard to know what was needed, as transit visa requirements differed for each country of entry. Then there were the different quarantine requirements for each transit point.

“The timing of the health declaration forms became crucial with regards to discretionary COVID-19 testing for travel—which was carried out by the University’s Student Health Services team—we couldn’t test too early, or too late, as the tests would need to be redone.”

Coping with the curveballs

Just some of the extra curveballs the team has had to contend with:

After six weeks trying to get a female scholar on a flight home, she was booked on a flight via Melbourne—which diverted to Sydney when Melbourne airport closed. She then missed her re-booked onward flight and became stuck in Sydney airport longer than the transit time allowed, and was about to be escorted to a quarantine hotel. The team back in New Zealand quickly arranged new connecting flights and assured authorities she would be leaving Australia, successfully avoiding the imminent quarantine.

Potential industrial action by laboratories, combined with the sheer volume of tests being processed, meant that timing of COVID-19 test results were unpredictable and potentially outside the 72-hour window needed for landing in Africa.

Mali was taken over by a military coup two days before the two Malian scholars were due to fly home.

No food was served on flights, and all the airport shops or kiosks were either closed or only accepted cashless payment—and the travelling scholars did not have electronic payment cards.

The extension of Alert Level 3 in Auckland resulted in the cancellation of domestic flights that were needed for scholars to connect with international flights.

So were there any flights that went according to plan?

“Yes!” says Jo-Anne. “One scholar had a completely normal, easy, commercial flight home!”

She says each time someone arrived home, there would be a round of high-fives and a few happy-dances.

Tara says the team never lost sight of the importance of what they were trying to do: “These are people’s lives that we’re dealing with, and we all take that responsibility seriously.”

For the six students that haven’t been able to return home yet—primarily due to border closures—Jo-Anne says even that cloud has a silver lining. “MFAT approved extended funding which allows us to run supplementary classes and day excursions that keep them engaged and learning—and they are really benefiting from the extra time spent learning English.”

Rebecca Steffens-Smith, MFAT’s Unit Manager, New Zealand Scholarships, says they have been delighted by the team’s efforts to go above and beyond to ensure the safe return home of their scholars during the unprecedented global crisis.

“A key outcome of the NZELTO programme is to build mutually beneficial connections between New Zealand and countries in Asia and Africa,” says Rebecca. “By looking after the wellbeing of scholars while under significant stress—and ensuring that they have continued to progress in English—has truly demonstrated manaakitanga, and been critical to the success of the programme.”