A 17-year-old boy is at the center of a diplomatic row over Australian deportations of New Zealanders on “character” grounds, with reports of separated families, prolonged detentions and mistreatment of minors.
Bound by deep economic ties and a century of wartime comraderie stretching back to the World War I bloodbath at Gallipoli, relations have sunk to their lowest point in years. Kiwi politicians are furious, claiming their country has become the unwitting victim of Australian domestic affairs.
“Look, it might suit Aussie politics, and it seems to me that there is a venal, political strain to all this,” New Zealand Justice Minister Andrew Little said this week about the deportations. “[But] it’s certainly not consistent with any humanitarian ideals that I thought both countries once shared.”
New Zealanders get preferential treatment in Australia as part of a trade agreement, but residency requirements for the estimated 700,000 who crossed the Tasman Sea have been tightened since 2001.
Those who failed to get dual citizenship were caught out in 2014, when it was decreed that foreigners could be deported if they had served a jail term of one year or more. The decree also allows for deportations of New Zealanders if found to fail a “character” test or are seen as a threat to Australians.
Kiwis were not the only target of the crackdown — it coincided with a broader debate on border security and immigration that is continuing in the build-up to a looming election — but to date they have been the main victims.
More than 1,300 New Zealanders have been kicked out of Australia in the past three years, eclipsing all other nationalities. About two-thirds of the deported Kiwis are Maori or have ethnic links to Pacific Island nations like Samoa and Tonga, leading to accusations of racial bias to the expulsions.
Human rights activists are concerned that many of those who suddenly found their visas were being canceled had lived in Australia for most of their lives and would be separated from other family members. In some cases, the deportees have never lived in New Zealand or even been there.
“Australia’s approach to this has been (to) deport people who are in many cases long-term residents who are Australians in every sense except a piece of paper,” said Timothy Gassin, chairman of Oz Kiwi, a group that is helping to represent New Zealanders residing in Australia.
While the law was supposedly aimed at criminals and other undesirables, it has also been used to get rid of perceived social irritants or those deemed as not fitting in. Earlier this month, authorities canceled the visa of the self-appointed pastor of an offbeat church for harassing Muslim worshippers at two mosques.
Logan Robertson’s Pillar Baptist Church, which is not affiliated with the mainstream Baptist movement, opposes Islamic teachings, homosexuals and abortion and has also been openly critical of the Mormon religion.
Like others awaiting deportation, Robertson was immediately placed in a detention center, where he could be kept for months while paperwork is processed. Children are routinely housed in adult immigration facilities, which critics charge is a violation of United Nations human rights decrees.
The tipping point could be the treatment meted out to a 17-year-old boy who was detained at an immigration center over a non-violent incident while he was traveling on an internal flight. The boy, who has lived in Australia for seven years and has a long criminal record, was eventually freed and has since returned to his family. But his visa was also canceled.
He will be able to stay in Australia for four months while an appeal is heard; if it fails, the teenager will probably be deported, even though the offence was minor. Under the terms of the 2014 changes, authorities can issue a deportation order because of a pattern of undesirable behavior.
A board of review is currently assessing whether the legislation needs to be altered and Gassin is optimistic that a fairer system might be adopted.
“We hope there will be recommendations, that it will achieve a fairer process. The minister has extraordinary power, where he is essentially judge, jury and executioner, as far as non-citizens are concerned,” he said.
Advocacy groups want New Zealand expatriates to be offered the same conditions as the 20,000 Australians living across the “ditch”, who get permanent residency on arrival and can apply for citizenship after five years. Only nine Australians have been deported from New Zealand since 2014.
Kiwis in Australia have difficulty meeting the stringent conditions for permanent residency, which affects their access to loans and welfare payments. University students are among those worst affected.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who makes the final decision on deportations, stands by Australia’s right to enforce its own borders.
“They’re New Zealand citizens, they’re not Australian citizens. And it’s no breach of human rights, in fact it’s a breach of the civil rights of Australians who fall victims to these criminals and Australia won’t tolerate it,” he told the state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
And Dutton says he isn’t prepared to make any exception for a 17-year-old boy.
“We will make sure that he’s deported at the first available opportunity, but at the moment he’s delaying his return to New Zealand,” Dutton said. “The criteria for us is whether you’ve committed an offense against Australian citizens and that’s the test that we apply.”