NZ-based Aussie doctor misses Kiwi Christmas after being denied boarding on flight home

An Otago-based Australian doctor who frequently flies across the Tasman has missed out on Christmas with her husband after she was refused entry onto her flight.

Dr Deborah Mills, known as Dr Deb, had just waved goodbye to her daughter at Brisbane International Airport on December 1 and went to check in before being told she didn’t meet the criteria to get back into New Zealand.

Dr Mills said after she and husband James Stewart first came across the ditch at the end of 2012, they both immediately fell in love with New Zealand.

By March 2014 they’d bought a house in Careys Bay, Dunedin, and had moved over by December.

However, her travel medicine business was in Australia and with Covid-19 she was starting to wind it up due to the lack of travel.

“I’m a travel medicine doctor, I give people immunisations when they go overseas to places like Africa and South America and I’m a specialist in infectious diseases, like dengue [fever] and malaria.

“I come back to work for a few weeks and go back to New Zealand. There’s no travel medicine opportunities in New Zealand, certainly in the area that we’re in … so that’s why I go back and forth.”

She thought she had organised all she had to for her return trip back to Dunedin when she was shocked to be told by airline staff she wouldn’t be boarding.

“I just couldn’t believe it, like ‘is this really happening?’

“I was so incredibly stressed. I was just like ‘oh my God, you can’t be serious?'”

She ended up being able to speak to an Immigration spokesperson on the phone who told her she was basing her decision on Mills’ travel history.

“I said ‘well I’m a fly-in fly-out worker, my travel history is not the full story, I have everything here, I’ve brought it to show you’ and she said that she can’t look at it and she’s going to have to hang up now.”

Knowing the likelihood she was going to be questioned, she had her rates information, driver’s licence and bank statements with her in case the Immigration officer wanted proof of her having lived in New Zealand.

On its website, Immigration NZ said it would base its decision on a culmination of evidence, yet Dr Mills was annoyed to be told they were basing their decision simply on her travel history.

“She was basing her decision on the flight history and on the [Immigration website] it says we will look at your flight history and other things but she didn’t look at any other things, she just looked at my flight history.”

Dr Mills’ argument proved fruitless and she was turned away from the airport and remained in Brisbane.

“I was there for all of quarantine, we got the message from Jacinda and we watched [Covid updates] every day and I just feel like this is so unfair, my house is there.

“[Husband is] there all by himself and we’re just devastated, absolutely devastated.”

Her daughters also lived in Australia but had made plans in other parts of the country for Christmas.

Fortunately, Mills is able to spend Christmas with her mother, who lives in Brisbane.

Mills said she was speaking to highlight the issue as she believed she wouldn’t have been the first to go through this experience.

She said rather than making the assessment optional, and leaving an unknown amount of uncertainty for travellers, Immigration NZ should make it compulsory.

Fortunately, she had taken the gamble last week and booked herself into Managed Isolation for February in the hope she would eventually get approval.

That approval came the same day as the Herald made inquiries on Mills’ behalf this week.

An INZ spokesperson confirmed Mills was denied boarding of her flight as INZ “was not satisfied she met the requirements to be considered ordinarily resident in New Zealand”.

“This was on the basis of her previous travel movements and that she spends more time in Australia than in New Zealand.”

Dr Mills’ subsequent visa application for a border exception was granted.

However, As Dr Mills had laid an official complaint, INZ could not comment any further.

The spokesperson said in most cases people can provide supporting evidence that they ordinarily reside in New Zealand at the time of travel.

“However, if there are any circumstances where their ordinarily resident status may be unclear, INZ strongly recommends that people lodge a request for assessment prior to their travel to New Zealand.

“Information about lodging a request for assessment is available on the INZ website. There is no charge for these requests for Australian citizens.”

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