Covid 19 Omicron: New Zealand journalist Charlotte Bellis pregnant and stuck in Afghanistan denied emergency MIQ spot

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Covid 19 Omicron: New Zealand journalist Charlotte Bellis pregnant and stuck in Afghanistan denied emergency MIQ spot

Rejected by her own country and with nowhere to turn, pregnant New Zealand journalist Charlotte Bellis says she had to ask the Taliban to allow her safe refuge in Afghanistan.

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In what she calls a “brutal” irony, Bellis last year achieved global fame after calling out the Taliban shortly after they seized power, asking how they’d ensure the rights of women and girls.

“Now, I am asking the same question of my own government,” says Bellis in an op-ed published in the Weekend Herald.

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But while her MIQ application was rejected initially, Bellis says just days later it was mysteriously reopened, after she had contacted a National MP and spoken with a friend who worked in PR, which she says raises “ethical” questions about the MIQ process.

Head of MIQ Chris Bunny says the process is “fair and consistent”, and while the application was initially rejected the team stayed in touch with Bellis to offer assistance about a new application.

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Christchurch-born Bellis had been reporting on Afghanistan for Al Jazeera, when in September she discovered she was pregnant.

She was in Qatar at the time, where it is illegal to be pregnant and unmarried. Her partner Jim Huylebroek, a photographer for The New York Times, was in Kabul and couldn’t get out.

Covid 19 Omicron: New Zealand journalist Charlotte Bellis pregnant and stuck in Afghanistan denied emergency MIQ spot

Pregnant New Zealand journalist Charlotte Bellis was denied emergency allocation for MIQ, and is stuck in Afghanistan. Photo / Jim Huylebroek

Unable to get to New Zealand, they went to Huylebroek’s home country Belgium, during which time Bellis repeatedly attempted to gain an MIQ spot through the lottery.

They were relieved when the Government announced MIQ would end for New Zealanders in February, and foreigners in April, meaning they could both get back in time for the birth in May.

But Bellis could not stay in Belgium either, and with nowhere else legally to turn she took the extraordinary step of contacting the Taliban to see if she could return safely to Afghanistan.

“When the Taliban offers you – a pregnant, unmarried woman – safe haven, you know your situation is messed up.”

Covid 19 Omicron: New Zealand journalist Charlotte Bellis pregnant and stuck in Afghanistan denied emergency MIQ spot

Charlotte Bellis says it is “brutally ironic” she is asking New Zealand for support, after gaining worldwide fame for calling out the Taliban over its treatment of women. Photo / Jim Huylebroek

But then those reopening dates were pushed back, and with it now so close to the birth date they applied for emergency MIQ spots.

They had letters from New Zealand obstetricians and medical experts to confirm the dangers of giving birth in Afghanistan, where the United Nations estimates an extra 58,000 women will die during childbirth by 2025 because of the state of maternity care, and the impact of high stress during pregnancy.

But on January 24 they received the devastating news: their applications had been rejected.

Covid 19 Omicron: New Zealand journalist Charlotte Bellis pregnant and stuck in Afghanistan denied emergency MIQ spot

Pregnant New Zealand journalist Charlotte Bellis says the only place she can legally be currently is Afghanistan. Photo / Jim Huylebroek

The reasons were varied, including that their planned departure date was in more than 14 days, and the claim she was not returning for a “scheduled medical treatment”.

“I thought I would cry, but I was in shock,” Bellis says.

“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?”

Her lawyer Tudor Clee says he has had about 30 pregnant New Zealand women contact him after being rejected for emergency MIQ spots, in variously difficult situations.

The Government was unable to provide current figures by deadline, but Stuff reported in October in the year prior there had been 229 applications involving pregnancy and just 23 approved.

Covid 19 Omicron: New Zealand journalist Charlotte Bellis pregnant and stuck in Afghanistan denied emergency MIQ spot

Pregnant New Zealand journalist Charlotte Bellis in Afghanistan. Photo / Jim Huylebroek

Clee says there is no specific category for pregnancy for MIQ emergency applications, making applications complicated and easy to get wrong.

This “oversight” is despite Clee representing women who have had their rejections and for their partners overturned, the first back in October.

“After those cases I wrote to Crown Law saying why not correct the guidance, instead of having people with no medical knowledge rejecting these applications and overriding advice from obstetricians and midwives.

“It is incredibly misogynistic and short-sighted.”

Professor Bev Lawton, director of the Centre for Women’s Health Research Te Tatai Hauora O Hine, says Bellis’ situation is “ridiculous”, but also potentially incredibly dangerous.

“There are obviously two things there, it is important to be with whānau and support systems, but also there is the risk to hers and the baby’s physical health, where she is.”

Covid 19 Omicron: New Zealand journalist Charlotte Bellis pregnant and stuck in Afghanistan denied emergency MIQ spot

Pregnant New Zealand journalist Charlotte Bellis says the only place she can legally be currently is Afghanistan. Photo / Jim Huylebroek

Bellis and Huylebroek’s applications are still under review, and Clee says they are holding off legal action until they have been properly considered again.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said he asked for their situation to be reviewed on Wednesday after a “senior National MP” contacted him about it.

It “appeared at first sight to warrant further explanation”, he said.

“My office passed this information on to officials to check whether the proper process was followed.”

Head of MIQ Bunny said Bellis’ application was rejected due to the intended travel dates being outside the 14-day window required.

He said despite this, their location of Afghanistan came to their attention and after the rejection they followed up with support about how a more successful application could be made.

“This is not uncommon and is an example of the team being helpful to New Zealanders who are in distressing situations.”

While pregnancy was not considered an emergency under the MIQ criteria, people could apply where they required “time-critical medical treatment” and if they needed to return to provide “critical care” to a dependent, he said.

Hipkins: Bellis' declined bid required “further explanation”

Hipkins has confirmed he is aware of pregnant Charlotte Bellis’ MIQ battle – and says he was provided information from an Opposition MP that showed her initial unsuccessful first application warranted “further explanation”.

Hipkins told the Herald that he had been contacted by a “senior National Party MP” on Wednesday with “information about this case and the circumstances about their declined application”.

He added that on reviewing the information it “appeared at first sight to warrant further explanation”.

“My office passed this information onto officials to check whether the proper process was followed,” Hipkins said.

“I’m unable to provide any further comment on MIQ at this stage as a court case against MIQ is being prepared and expected to be heard soon.”

Speaking specifically on Bellis’ bid to gain MIQ ahead of the arrival of her baby, Head of MIQ Chris Bunny told the Herald that the journalist applied for an emergency voucher on January 24.

Bunny said the date she requested of February 27 was not within the 14-day window required for an emergency allocation.

“She received a response deactivating the application and inviting her to reapply within the 14 day window, and to contact MIQ if she intended to change her flights to return to New Zealand earlier,” Bunny said.

“We have not received any subsequent confirmation that Ms Bellis intends to bring her flights forward.”

Bunny added there was a “team of people” who managed emergency allocation requests “and the team keep a close eye on applications, and Charlotte’s location of Afghanistan came to their attention”.

“Thirty minutes after the initial decline email, they reached out to inform her that if she intended to change her flights to an earlier return date, that more supporting information would be required to process a subsequent application and they highlighted the evidence requirements,” Bunny said.

“This is not uncommon and is an example of the team being helpful to New Zealanders who are in distressing situations.”

It was not “uncommon” for Members of Parliament to be contacted by those who had not been successful in gaining an emergency MIQ allocation, Bunny said.

“When anyone brings individual cases to our attention, we look into the case and the process that was followed. This is standard practice. There is also a process in place for people to seek reviews of their own applications.”

Bunny said pregnancy was “not considered an emergency under the emergency allocation criteria”, but added “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.

“Category 2a allows people to urgently return to New Zealand to provide critical care for a dependent (i.e: their spouse/partner who is pregnant). To meet the ‘critical care’ requirement, an applicant’s situation must be very serious, and no one else is in a position to assist the person that the application refers to.”

Bunny said all applications for an emergency MIQ spot were assessed on a case-by-case basis.

“Right now, MIQ is under pressure like never before and we are currently experiencing very high volumes of emergency allocation requests due to widespread travel disruption around the world.”

Between October 30, 2020, and January 23, 2002, MIQ had processed 8863 completed applications and approved 5396 applications for emergency allocations.

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