A pregnant journalist in Afghanistan can return home

A pregnant New Zealand journalist who was stranded in Afghanistan by her home country’s Covid-19 border policy said on Tuesday she would return home after her government offered her a pathway back.

The government’s offer amounted to a pushback from New Zealand after officials earlier insisted Charlotte Bellis must reapply for a place in the country’s congested quarantine hotels. Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said Bellis had been offered a voucher for a room.

“I will return to my home country of New Zealand in early March to give birth to our baby girl,” Bellis said in a statement. “We are thrilled to return home and be surrounded by our family and friends at such a special time.”

His case quickly became embarrassing for New Zealand, which has thousands of citizens overseas waiting for space to open in military-run border quarantine hotels.

Bellis said she wanted to thank her fellow New Zealanders for their support and would continue to challenge the government to find a solution to its border controls. She added that she was disappointed the decision was a one-off and offered no way back to other pregnant New Zealanders.

She said Sunday that every day was a battle. Now 25 weeks pregnant, she said she unsuccessfully tried to enter New Zealand through a lottery-like system and then applied for an emergency return, but was rejected.

Chris Bunny, the head of New Zealand’s quarantine system, said the new offer was made to Bellis because Afghanistan was extremely dangerous and there was a risk of terrorism. He said the ability to help people on the ground was limited, especially after the withdrawal of US forces last year.

Bunny said the publicity surrounding the case was not a deciding factor and the only consideration was Bellis’ safety.

Bellis, 35, had worked as a correspondent in Afghanistan for Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news network. She quit in November because it is illegal to be pregnant and single in Qatar.

Taliban fighters stand guard at a checkpoint on a street in Kabul on December 17, 2021.
The Taliban took control of Afghanistan last year as the United States withdrew.Mohd Rasfan/AFP-Getty Images

Bellis then flew to Belgium, trying to secure residency in the home country of her partner, freelance photographer Jim Huylebroek, who has lived in Afghanistan for two years. But Bellis said the length of the process would have left her in Belgium with an expired visa.

Jumping around on tourist visas while she waited for her baby would have cost money and left her without healthcare, so she and Huylebroek went back to Afghanistan because they had a visa, felt welcome and from there could fight his battle to return to his home.

New Zealand officials said they would add Huylebroek to Bellis’ voucher if he took the same flight with her.

New Zealand’s Covid-19 response minister, Chris Hipkins, said this week that while officials had to make tough choices, the quarantine system had worked well overall in saving lives and preventing the system of health from being overwhelmed.

The Taliban have faced international criticism for the repressive rules they have imposed on women since taking power in mid-August, including denying girls education beyond sixth grade.

However, they said all girls and women would be allowed to go to school after the Afghan New Year at the end of March. While women have returned to work in the ministries of health and education, thousands of female civil servants have not been allowed to return to their jobs.