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New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern raised concerns over the Turnbull government’s policy of deporting offending New Zealanders at a press conference in Sydney last Friday. In particular, the NZ PM questioned the practice of deporting individuals who have made Australia their home over decades.
The Australian PM told reporters that the “process is a fair and just one.” When asked if it was moral to deport people who have stronger ties to Australia than New Zealand, Mr Tunbull responded, “the answer to that question is yes.”
Since the federal government made changes to the migration “character test” back in December 2014, an estimated 1,200 Kiwis have been sent to New Zealand.
The Migration Amendment (Character and General Visa Cancellation) Bill 2014 amended section 501 of the Migration Act 1958, so that it’s now mandatory to send non-citizens back to their countries of birth, after being sentenced to prison terms that total 12 months or more.
This policy has resulted in some rather contentious deportation cases, involving people who have very little or no connection to NZ. The latest case being that of American Samoa born Alex Viane, who became a New Zealand citizen as a child, but has never actually been to the country.
Mr Viane had his Australian visa cancelled on character grounds last July. And now the 38-year-old is currently sitting in Villawood detention centre waiting to be sent to a country where he has no family or support networks.
“Ardern has been consistent in her message during the election in September 2017, on her previous visit to Australia in November to meet Turnbull ahead of APEC and on this visit,” said Joanne Cox, media liaison for OZ Kiwi, the peak body representing New Zealanders in Australia.
We support Ms Ardern’s “stance as we see the damage the section 501 amendment has wrought,” she continued.
Prior to the migration law amendments, non-citizens could only be deported after accumulating sentences that added up to 2 years or more. So, in 2014, the government effectively lowered the bar on what sort of offences can warrant deportation.
“The level of offending is often low,” Ms Cox told Sydney Criminal Lawyers®. “So petty crimes can see someone deported.” Although, she added, that immigration minister Peter Dutton “will demonise these people as the worst of the worst.”
Ms Cox explained that many deportees have driving offences, unpaid court fines and minor cannabis offences against their names. And even suspended sentences and juvenile crime penalties can count for the 12 month accumulated prison terms.
The section 501 amendment has resulted in a tenfold increase in visa cancellations. Over the three year period July 2014 to June 2017, a total of 2,850 visas were cancelled on character grounds.
And although these changes weren’t aimed specifically at New Zealanders, the amendments are having their greatest impact upon the Kiwi community. Over the year 2016-17, 51 percent of all non-citizens who had their visas cancelled were from NZ.
On January 31 this year, 170 New Zealander detainees made up the largest group of people being held in Australia’s onshore immigration detention facilities, according to Department of Immigration and Border Protection statistics.
These numbers have been growing since the changes. In February 2015, New Zealanders didn’t rate as a distinct group in detention, while in September that year they were the second biggest cohort of detainees. And by June 2016, Kiwis made up the largest group in onshore detention.
According to Ms Cox, a lack of a pathway to citizenship for New Zealanders who arrived post February 2001, means that more Kiwis are remaining non-citizens and are therefore more susceptible to these laws.
And deportees are being “separated from children, partners, whānau (extended family) in a land many don’t know or can’t remember,” she further explained. As Ms Ardern made clear last week, a lack of support doesn’t lead to an easy reintegration or rehabilitation.
NZ police commissioner Mike Bush said at a committee hearing last month that 44 percent of New Zealanders who have been deported from Australia are reoffending after returning to NZ shores.
PARS Incorporated is a charitable organisation that provides support services to deportees integrating into the NZ community. Over the year 2016-17, PARS provided services to 140 returning offenders arriving in Auckland. And since July 1 last year, it’s served a further 183 deportees.
“PARS support clients that are subject to a supervision order and are being monitored by the Department of Corrections initially on arrival,” Tui Ah Loo, chief executive of PARS said, adding that they also support clients who are not subject to an order, but need reintegration support.
Ms Ah Loo identified the two most immediate needs for returning offenders as “accommodation and an income to survive.” And along with these, PARS assists clients with a range of processes, such as obtaining identification, registering with health services and finding “positive community networks of purpose and support.”
During 2018, PARS is going to launch a new mentoring program for “clients who identify as needing a significant person of support in their life,” Ms Ah Loo told Sydney Criminal Lawyers®. “This support is particularly beneficial for returning offenders who have very little local support.”
The Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement has allowed for the free movement of Australians and New Zealanders across the ditch since 1973. However, the government is now deporting large numbers of Kiwis via a practice that was condemned by the UN Human Rights Committee back in 2011.
And while Australia is deporting some adults who arrived here as children, NZ has a tiered deportation system that takes into account how long a person has lived there and the seriousness of their crimes. A non-citizen cannot be deported after 10 years of living in New Zealand.
Ms Cox explained that unlike in Australia, the policy of deporting “Kiwi criminals” is big news in New Zealand, where there is a lot of “negative media” regarding “the unfair nature of returning people who have not lived” in the country for decades.
However, the Coalition seems fine to look the other way as it’s called out on this policy, even though it’s fracturing relations with its closest neighbour, as well as raising questions as to how long a person can live in Australia before the government is shirking its responsibilities by throwing them out.
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.