Tonga unable to repatriate stranded RSE workers till 2022

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A Tongan official says the country is doing all it can to bring home about 700 workers stuck in New Zealand, but will wait till it’s safe.

Nuku'alofa, Tonga.

A street in Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa. Photo: 123rf/ Don Mammoser

Until the arrival of a Covid-19 case on the latest repatriation flight from Christchurch Tonga had been free of the virus. The Tonga government has stressed that its priority remains trying to keep the virus out of the country.

But Ministry of Internal Affairs chief executive Fotu Fisiiahi said the government was committed to bringing home the horticultural workers, who came to New Zealand as part of the Recognised Seasonal Employers (RSE) scheme.

“But at a time that we think will be safe for all,” he said.

“There are other citizens there – there are more Tongan citizens stranded in New Zealand and Australia – more than the RSE, and they both have the urgency.

“So we can’t just look at the RSE without considering the other citizens in New Zealand and Australia. There are people in Fiji, people in China, people in Thailand, there are students in China, students in Japan.”

Dr Fisiiahi said following the cancellation of repatriation flights this week and next, there will be no more such flights before the end of December. However, the middle of January is a possibility.

There was also no way Tonga could extend its current quarantine capacity beyond 300 people.

He said if the RSE workers want a charter flight provided, that would have to be negotiated by them and their employers – but the government would have no role in it.

Most of the workers have been in New Zealand since late 2019, arriving on visas for seven months seasonal work.

Dr Fisiiahi said the Tonga government had already repatriated about 1300 RSE workers, and would eventually get these others home as well.

Many RSE workers unwell

Many of the RSE workers from Tonga who are stranded in New Zealand are now unwell and are no longer able to work properly, an advocate said.

RSE scheme liaison Sefita Hao’uli has written to Tonga’s newly elected MPs, calling for them to increase quarantine facilities and charter a plane for the RSE workers.

He said the effect of being stranded far from home was taking its toll.

“There are people who are no longer able to work to their full capacity. The level of depression among workers who have just had enough – they want to go home, they don’t want to work anymore.

“And there are also people who have been here all this time, and they see being here as a blessing because the need for them to go home is such that they’d prefer to be here to support their families.”

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