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Image: Archi Banal/Tina Tiller
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PoliticsFebruary 2, 2023

End in sight for Australian deportations denounced as draconian and inhumane

Image: Archi Banal/Tina Tiller
Image: Archi Banal/Tina Tiller

PM Anthony Albanese has announced changes to help protect New Zealand-born residents of Australia from deportation, following years of outcry about the toll on so-called ‘501s’. Don Rowe looks at why the policy is so widely reviled.

A major shift in Australian immigration policy means the government will now consider a wider range of factors before ordering the deportation of New Zealand-born residents under the notorious section 501 of the Australian Migration Act.

The new directive, issued by Australian immigration minister Andrew Giles, requires officials to weigh the strength and nature of a potential deportee’s connections to Australia as well as the impact on their children when making decisions regarding their visa. The length of time someone has lived in Australia is now a “primary consideration”, a government spokesperson said.

The change in direction comes almost a year since prime minister Anthony Albanese vowed to reconsider the policy Jacinda Ardern once characterised as “corrosive” to trans-Tasman relations.

Section 501 of the Migration Act, amended last in 2014 by hardline Liberal Party leader Peter Dutton, allows for the cancellation or refusal of the visa of any migrant on “good character” grounds. Dutton famously featured in a news piece in which deportees were antagonised on the runway of an airport. Elsewhere, he referred to deportees as “trash”.

Meg de Ronde, executive director of Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand, told the Guardian such “dehumanisation” was a worrying approach.

“I have to think by constantly demonising and singling people out – ‘taking out the trash’ – this degrading language is just compounding the trauma and the shame and humiliation of this.”

Failure to meet the “good character” test – which includes not only a wide range of criminal behaviour but also more nebulous factors like undesirable social connections – has seen thousands of New Zealand-born Australian residents deported.

The Villawood Immigration Detention Centre near Sydney, where many New Zealanders are held before being deported (Photo: Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images)

Many of them have been held in inhumane conditions at Australia’s notorious detention facilities, some have ended up dead. In 2015, 23-year-old Junior Togatuki died in his cell at Sydney Supermax.

Togatuki, who had lived in Australia since the age of four, had been held for up to a month in solitary confinement. His psychiatrist reported an increase in psychotic symptoms and Togatuki’s medication was increased. Guards entered his flooded cell to find pleas for help written in blood.

Professor Gillian Trigg, president of the Australian Human Rights Commission from 2012-2017, told The Spinoff that conditions in detention centres are in breach of the UN Convention on Torture. The facilities, she said, “are designed to break people”.

Many deportees have lives in Australia: jobs, families, homes. Many have no connection to New Zealand at all, having not been back in decades. One man, born to an Australian mum holidaying in New Zealand in 1974, currently awaits deportation.

Those that do come back are often cast adrift, like Matthew Taylor who was found dead in a Porirua playground in 2017.

Tokens to remember Matt Taylor, a 501 deportee who died shortly after arriving in NZ (Image: Supplied)

The complexities of Australia’s immigration system, as well as the right to work, live and study that New Zealand-born migrants are granted on the Special Category Visa, mean many people never seek full citizenship. Day-to-day it’s not a critical distinction, but the act leaves non-citizen residents vulnerable to the workings of section 501.

Seventy-year-old Larice Rainne was deported in 2019 after spending 55 years living in Australia, even working for the government. She arrived in New Zealand for the first time since 1964 with a bag of clothes, no family and $200 to her name.

“Exile,” she said, “is a totally diabolical situation to be in.”

In 2015, a 15-year-old was deported in a secretive process that then-children’s commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft called a breach of Australia’s international obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Other deportees have been blamed for an increase in gang violence and organised crime here at home. The man accused of murdering Sandringham dairy worker Janak Patel last year was reportedly a recent deportee, and figures released to RNZ under the Official Information Act revealed more than half of deportees have reoffended on arrival. Of the roughly 14,000 offences committed by deportees since 2015, almost 3000 were violent crimes.

Slain dairy owner Janak Patel, pictured on the cover of his funeral programme. (Photo: RNZ / Rayssa Almeida)

Some 501s are hardened offenders from Australia’s biker gangs, and have created sophisticated and professional criminal networks, police say. Organisations like the Comancheros have been blamed for intensifying violence and shootings, and in 2021 National Māori Authority chair Matthew Tukaki urged the government to “turn the planes around”. New Zealand is not a “dumping ground for Australian criminals,” he said.

Speaking in Auckland on Wednesday, prime minister Chris Hipkins said he welcomed the shift, especially the Australian government’s acknowledgement of potential deportees’ connections to Australia.

“Some of them have been there since they were very young children, and sending them to New Zealand when they have no connections here other than a very historic one isn’t really a fair or just outcome.”

Hipkins applauded the move as a “first step” and said work would continue on immigration rights and the “general treatment” of New Zealanders living in Australia.

The directive comes into effect on March 3, but for the thousands of whānau who have made their lives across the ditch the relief has likely already begun.

This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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