The amendment to Australia’s Immigration Act allows any foreign national who fails a “character test” to have their visa revoked, which includes anyone who has been sentenced to twelve months or more in Australian prison. Because the majority of these people don’t want to be deported, they’re ferried to detention centres where they’re held temporarily while their cases are worked out.
Because of the large numbers of New Zealanders living in Australia, this means that a lot of Kiwis have been caught up in this system, and are now stuck in these centres awaiting deportation, where they are now the second largest nationality after Iranians.
Australia has a network of detention centres, most of which are on neighbouring islands such as Nauru and Christmas Island in order to keep them out of sight and off the mainland. They have the capacity to hold thousands of detainees at once, the majority of whom are asylum seekers or refugees fleeing persecution and conflict in their home nations.
Running these centres is a familiar face: Serco. As well as building prisons here in New Zealand, The British security giant has a substantial presence in Australia.
Conditions in these centres are notoriously poor. They are often overcrowded and understaffed, and have high incidences of suicide among detainees, including one New Zealander. Prisoners there are reportedly fed out of buckets, kept in sweltering heat and sometimes not even given enough water, but the torture is in the uncertainty. Prisoners are held in these detention centres indefinitely, with months going by with little indication about when they’ll be released, or where they’re going when they do. Some are being held beyond the period of their original prison sentence, with no clear path to release in sight. It’s not even clear what rights these prisoners have in terms of processes, or who makes the decisions about where they’re sent.
Refugees in these centres are said to have resorted to self-harm as a means of drawing attention to their cases, and have used hunger strikes, rioting and even evocative methods such as digging their own symbolic graves as means of protest against their detention.
In some ways, it’s good that more attention is being drawn to the conditions that Australia keeps its refugees in. On the other hand though, it’s incredible that New Zealand citizens would be imprisoned under these conditions by any friendly nation, let alone Australia. The special relationship between our two countries, which has a history through the ANZACs and before, seems to have been erased with the flick of a pen.
It’s fair enough that Australia doesn’t want to look after other countries’ offenders. But they only need to be smarter about it. Here in New Zealand, deportation is handled individually on a case-by-case basis. Doubtless mistakes are made, but it should at least capture obvious cases, like if somebody has lived here since they were a child. And there’s no reason why it would take months in a refugee camp to figure that out.
In terms of New Zealand, if these offenders are sent here many will have no homes or any family to live with. They won’t have jobs, any possessions, or even any friends. Something needs to be done to resettle these people, not least because these conditions are known to produce reoffending.
Because of increasingly nasty Australian politics, hundreds of our citizens are being left in situations not unlike refugees themselves. That’s a hell of a way to treat your mates.