NZ-based advocacy and support group Route 501 recently came into possession of footage showing what appeared to be a group of bashed and bleeding Aotearoa nationals tied to common room furnishing in this nation’s immigration facility on Christmas Island.
And this was obviously the work of Australian immigration detention guards.
Reopened by PM Scott Morrison in early 2019, the island detention centre is these days mainly used to imprison a type of detainee known as a 501er. Indeed, 77 percent of those in the facility were 501ers last November, which means they’ve been slated for deportation on character grounds.
These types of detainees weren’t given much consideration prior to then immigration minister Scott Morrison toughening the laws around deportation based on character grounds in late 2014, which has since seen the mass deportation of thousands of long-term residents, primarily Kiwis.
Twelve months’ worth of served or unserved sentences sees noncitizens automatically turfed out of the country. However, most are first sent off to serve further unspecified time in immigration detention, where it’s often stressed, the treatment meted out is worse than in prison.
The recent footage of the bloody detainees is hardly the first such scene to arise. Numerous clips are shared on social media showing officers clad in riot gear and holding shields shifting single detainees around, who are either refugees, who’ve committed no crime, or 501ers, who’ve served their time.
Basic rights denied
“People in Australian immigration detention centres are treated daily with disdain and contempt,” said Route 501 founder Filipa Payne. “The structure established does not permit people to be addressed by their names, but rather a number. Therefore, dehumanising them straightaway.”
“The detention centres have been structured in such a way to break a person’s self-esteem and self-worth,” the deportee rights advocate told Sydney Criminal Lawyers. “They don’t uphold human rights or recognise the detainees as people.”
According to Payne, those “illegal noncitizens” awaiting deportation are sent to immigration centres located in remote regions, so they’re no longer in close contact with their family or community, and it’s this distance that permits multiple human rights abuses to occur.
Many of the individuals who’ve fallen short of the deportation regime have spent a majority of their lives living within the Australian community and have families that are now being torn apart. And as they await their fate, they’re patrolled by overbearing guards as if they’re prisoners of war.
“I’m horrified and astounded that in the year 2022, Australia is treating people in such a manner,” Payne stressed. “It flies under the radar because the Australian public allows it to: justifying it by continuously turning a blind eye and stating criminals deserve this brutality.”
Deporting local crime
The Abbott government saw the passing of the Character and General Visa Cancellation Bill in late 2014, and since midway through the following year, the nation has been annually deporting around 1,000 individuals, often long-term residents over multiple minor offences.
Morrison amended section 501 of the Migration Act 1958 (Cth), so that noncitizens that are sentenced to at least 12 months’ gaol time are automatically deported. This includes whether it’s multiple sentences, suspended ones, time in residential rehabilitation or a mental health facility.
And, as Payne explains it, once the deportation numbers started to decline, the government moved on to amended section 116 of the Act, which permits noncitizens to be deported if they threaten “the health, safety or good order of the Australian community”. That’s how Djokovic was deported.
These amendments instantly led to hundreds of New Zealand nationals being deported. Initially, the NZ government wasn’t warned about the fallout coming its way. And since late 2016, Kiwis have consistently been the largest cohort in onshore detention centres, give or take a month or two.
“Most held within Australian immigration detention have been raised as a young child in Australia. They are a product of its values and society,” explained Payne. “Yet Australia takes no moral responsibility for this and instead” places it on the shoulders of other countries.
But these deportations have not sated Morrison and Co, as evidenced by current immigration minister Alex Hawke having introduced the Strengthening the Character Test Bill, which contains a set of laws that parliament already voted down last year.
The proposed changes involved would see noncitizens who are convicted of a designated offence –which carries at least two years’ time and involves violence, non-consensual sexual conduct, breaching a court order or using a weapon – will be automatically deported regardless of sentence.
So, this would leave it open for deportation over a common assault conviction, with a very low sentence applied.
“This is a desperate move, by a desperate government. The truly sad aspect is Labor have stated they will not oppose it,” said Payne. “It appears no Australian political party will stand for equality, dignity, and liberty for all people, but rather continue on the rhetoric of divide and conquer.”
The rights advocate warns that if passed, the new laws will simply add to a flood of broken families in this country, as well as thousands more Australian residents, who were born in NZ, finding themselves in a land where they have no real ties, nor any way to support themselves.
An international challenge
Route501 Advocacy and Support Limited has commenced a series of legal actions filed with the United Nations on behalf of the Australian deportees, which is supported by a legal team made up of experts from this country and New Zealand.
The claims argue that the Morrison deportation regime involves cruel and unusual punishment, arbitrary detention, denies due process, incorporates a form of double punishment, destroys families and involves unlawful discrimination based on nation of origin.
Payne further outlined that the legal team is considering each individual case, which is then allocated to an overall group claim. However, if exceptional circumstances are involved, an individual claim can then be advanced.
“There is no justification for this brutality,” the Route 501 founder said in relation to the level violence guards used on detainees during the recent incident. “And I challenge why this is legally accepted when, if a person in society inflicted this, they would be arrested and charged.”
“The Christmas Island immigration detention centre should be shut down immediately” Payne concluded, “and charges laid against the perpetrators.”