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By Jason Brown

AVARUA Cook Islands (June 29, 2001 – Cook Islands News)---Two Cook Islanders on their way home to Rarotonga were stunned to be told at Auckland Airport recently that they had to pay a return fare.

Serena and Conrad Hunter were told by Air New Zealand staff in Auckland they did not have a residency stamp in their passport, so they would have to pay a return fare as required by Cook Islands immigration laws.

"The incident with Serena, I believe, was a mistake on our part," said Air New Zealand’s Cook Islands manager Ron de Groot yesterday.

"If they could have used a little common sense. . ."

de Groot said he is refunding the Hunters their return ticket.

The fact that the Hunter’s passports were issued in Rarotonga should have been a good clue to Air New Zealand staff as to where they lived, said de Groot.

The Hunter’s difficulties at Auckland started with a decision made two years ago by the government here to require all Cook Islands residents to have their passports stamped.

But the regulation has been poorly enforced, both here and in New Zealand. The fact that all Cook Islanders are also New Zealand citizens has complicated matters as well. All passports have to come through the New Zealand High Commission.

However, the High Commission does not have the responsibility of making sure passports are stamped with proof of residency.

"It’s got nothing to do with them," said Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Immigration Edwin Pittman. "It’s a Cook Islands government issue."

Pittman said an announcement was made two years ago about the change in regulations. "This is not new, once a month, or once a year. This crops up again and again," said Pittman.

Their office has always been open for stamping of passports to avoid situations like the one faced by the Hunters.

"Only this time I intend to make this facility available at the airport so they can get their passports stamped to say they are a resident of the Cook Islands."

Temporary residents cannot get the stamp because they are covered by work and visitor’s permits, with the list held by Immigration, said Pittman.

It is especially important for Cook Islanders born in New Zealand -- "like yours truly" -- to get a stamp because there is nothing obvious to show where you come from, like birthplace.

de Groot said airline staff in Auckland may have been extra careful lately because they have been "hit hard" by authorities in the United States and Tahiti.

Landing arrivals in those countries without proper paperwork sees the airline fined about $10,000 for each case, he said.

In this case, however, with the Hunters holding passports showing they were issued in Rarotonga, and with passport stamps in and out of the country, "someone could have used their brains a little bit more," said de Groot.

For additional reports from the Cook Islands News Online, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Cook Islands News Online.

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