Charlotte Bellis, of Al Jazeera English, a reporter covering political and military movements in Afghanistan, has been denied re-entry into her home country of New Zealand due to strict quarantine protocols. With nowhere else to go due to her visa restrictions, she was forced to contact the Taliban, who she said was more than welcome to have her. This ironic situation comes after Bellis had questioned the Taliban and its leaders about human rights and women’s rights within the country.

While working in Afghanistan, she found out that she was pregnant upon reporting to Al Jazeera English’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar. However, it is widely known that it is illegal for women to be pregnant and unmarried in the Islamic country. More so, Qatar’s laws forbid unmarried couples to be living with each other under one roof, and family visas are not issued to those who cannot present a marriage certificate. Thus, Bellis kept her pregnancy a secret as she could have been apprehended or subjected to other punishment if the Qatar authorities were to find out.

This put Charlotte Bellis and her boyfriend, Kim Huylebroek, a photographer based in Afghanistan, in a sticky situation where they could return to New Zealand, move to Belgium (Huylebroek’s home country), or go back to Afghanistan.

Of the three options, the most sensical was to apply for an emergency trip back to her home country. However, with New Zealand’s closed borders, she had to apply for an emergency return with over 59 documents required to do so – only for the New Zealand government to reject her application. Bellis claims that her application was first denied because of a 14-day technicality requirement afterward. The reason for the rejection was that she allegedly did not meet the threshold for medical staff.

On the contrary, Chris Hipkins, New Zealand’s head of COVID-19 response, said that the emergency allocation criteria require applicants to travel back home to NZ within 14 days. Bellis replied to the authorities that she wanted to travel by the end of February. Hipkins also claimed that Bellis was offered help by the New Zealand consul when she had returned to Afghanistan.

It was reported that before returning to Afghanistan, she and her partner moved to Belgium. However, she could not stay for very long as she was not a resident of the country. So, upon rejection of entry to her home country, she contacted her Taliban contacts for aid. The Taliban reportedly was helpful with her pregnancy, stating, “We’re happy for you, you can come, and you won’t have a problem.” In this situation, the COVID-19 restrictions of New Zealand and the EU’s strict immigration policies combined to deliver to the Taliban a major public relations victory.

It was an eye-opener for Charlotte Bellis. She said that if the Taliban of all people were to be open toward accepting a pregnant, foreign, unmarried woman, providing her a safe haven after all their differences when her own home country could not, that’s when she knew her situation was “messed up.”

Taliban fighters and truck in Kabul, 2021 (Wikimedia Commons). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Taliban_Fighters_and_Truck_in_Kabul,_August_17_2021.png
Taliban fighters and in a truck in Kabul, 2021 (Wikimedia Commons).

This report comes after the Taliban authorities had been implicated in the killings of Afghan women who were human rights activists and former soldiers who backed the United States. Reports have also surfaced that the situation for women and children has worsened under the Taliban rule, with most girls barred from going back to school and are systemically discriminated against in the workplace. This resulted in women-led protests in December 2021, when crowds of Afghan women marched in the center of Kabul. Several protestors and reporters were detained later on.

Bellis’ situation has been the catalyst for individuals to debate the New Zealand response to COVID-19, where many observers see the situation as blind bureaucratic stupidity, even as the government defends it actions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the country.

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