Christmas Island detention centre (Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

‘You can easily fall off the edge’: NZ detainees on the mental toll of Australia’s deportation policy

New Zealanders are disproportionately affected by section 501 of Australia’s Migration Act, which allows foreigners to be deported if they’re deemed to pose a threat to the nation. Julie Hill spoke to three ‘501s’ about life in detention and after deportation.

Anya Weta is Māori, but she knows little about New Zealand, having moved with her family to Australia when she was two. Now in her late 30s, she feels zero connection to her homeland. 

A few years ago, her life revolved around drugs. She ended up in prison, found guilty of shoplifting to pay for her habit. After doing her time, she was told she’d failed a character test which meant she posed a threat to the country, and had to be deported back to New Zealand.

Weta appealed the order, arguing that her father, disabled mother, siblings, husband and daughter are all based in Sydney. She won, was released, and spent a year keeping out of trouble. Suddenly, Immigration overturned her appeal, and she was sent to detention. Over two years, she’s bounced around centres in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney while she waits to appeal again. 

Weta is a “501”, named after the character test in section 501 of the Migration Act, whereby foreigners can be deported if they’re deemed to pose a threat to the nation. The law change came into force five years ago and disproportionately affects New Zealanders, the largest group of non-citizens on temporary visas in Australia. Most of the deported are Māori and Pasifika. 

In 2015, detainees on Christmas Island rioted following the discovery of an asylum seeker’s body at the bottom of a cliff. Guards responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, and New Zealand-born 501s were blamed for the incident. Kelvin Davis, then the Labour opposition’s corrections spokesman, said, “The Australians, I believe, have lost the plot, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they went in with batons swinging, if not worse.”

Now that Davis’ party is in power, however, the deportation policy remains in place. And, while Jacinda Ardern told Australia it was having a “corrosive” effect on the trans-Tasman relationship, the newly re-elected conservative coalition responded by pledging to make the character test even tougher, so that thousands more will face deportation. 

There are now 1270 people in detention at a dozen locations in Australia and offshore. New prime minister Scott Morrison wants to reopen Christmas Island. The country once colonised by convicts is now dotted with structures that increasingly resemble maximum-security prisons. 

Photo: (Scott Fisher/Getty Images)

In detention, they call Adrian Maera “Kiwi”, but he’s not really a Kiwi. He has relatives in New Zealand, but has spent 39 years in Australia. After serving six months in jail for breaking a restraining order, the same crime he’d committed 20 years earlier, Immigration told him they wanted him gone. He’s spent 18 months on Christmas Island and a year in Melbourne.

When Jacinda Ardern visited Australia in July, Maera was disappointed. “I would have thought she would have spoken up and said a bit more. We know she did use the word ‘corrosive’ but if I had my chance, I would have wanted her to visit some of the detention centres. But there’s no way they would have allowed her to see what it’s actually like in these places.”

On Christmas Island, Maera and a few others helped other detainees navigate their way through Australia’s court system. “We called ourselves ‘The Firm’. We had a couple of wins, but a lot of the guys were getting turned down, and you get to the stage where you just can’t take it any more. 

“My neighbour sewed up his lips the other night. Last week, my other neighbour decided to wrap himself in towels and set himself on fire. Then we had a fatality about four doors down from me two weeks ago, a guy from Afghanistan. If you want to see mental illness, come to a detention centre. It breeds in here. I try and keep myself sane by reading and so on, because you can easily fall off the edge.”

Maera says abuse and corruption are rife, and that some guards are “rogues, tyrants”. He says his friends have been telling him to do whatever it takes to get out of there. Recently, he lost a second appeal, and decided to give up fighting. 

The immigration detention centre on Christmas Island in 2012 (Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Aydan Brown is in New Zealand, having spent a year in detention before being deported. Here, he’s met his grandmother, an older brother and his mum’s siblings, but “I don’t really know them, so I just keep to myself.”  

Back in Sydney, he was a concreter, with a partner and two kids. “I was on a couple of suspended sentences, for fighting and that. I was caught driving while I was disqualified. I went to court and that’s when they locked me up, over a driving charge.”

After a short spell in Sydney, he was thrown in a van and told he was being moved to Christmas Island. Instead, he was taken to Perth where, he says, officers used force and searched detainees’ rooms for no reason. 

Earlier this year, he joined a hunger strike to protest conditions at the centre, but stopped when he realised no one was paying attention. “People were fainting, going into deep depression, harming themselves. It just does nothing and I don’t see no point in us trying to hurt ourselves. It’s a waste of time doing things like that, protesting. They just don’t really care.”

Recently, he lost his second appeal and decided to give up fighting. He signed his deportation papers and is now in Christchurch. He has a new partner, but he hasn’t seen his kids in two years. “It’s a different life for me, but I needed to move on. I couldn’t do anything for my kids. I had to come back to New Zealand. It’s all good. I’m working, got my partner, we’ve got a house, we’re settled. I have to move on with life I suppose.” 

The Villawood Immigration Detention Centre near Sydney, where Anya Weta is being held (Photo: GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)

When someone is deported to New Zealand, they are given a few hundred bucks and temporarily housed with other detainees. That’s what Anya Weta says she fears: being “stuck in a lodge with a whole lot of 501s – and doing what? Just getting drunk?” 

At the start of this year, Weta submitted a Freedom of Information request to find out why she poses such danger to Australia. “They came back with, ‘It’s in the public interest not to give you those documents because it then paves the way for you to challenge the Australian Border Force.’”

She says being in detention is far worse than prison. “In prison, you’ve got an end date. You have work to go to, education. Here we’ve got nothing. All you do is sit around, twiddling your thumbs.”

At the moment, she’s at Villawood in Sydney, close to her family. But she wishes she was further away. “Mentally and emotionally, it’s better for me to be at a distance. Here, I see my husband every second day, my daughter. It becomes too much for them to handle. If I stress about what’s going on for me, then they stress, and it makes it even harder.”

A fuller version of this text will appear in an upcoming publication for artist Cushla Donaldson’s work ‘501s’, part of the group show The Shouting Valley, which opens at Gus Fisher Gallery on 27 September.


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