This Artist Exposes the Voices of New Zealanders Trapped in Australian Detention Centres
And now VICE can share these heartbreaking messages for the first time outside the exhibition.
In August, Kiwi artist Cushla Donaldson hijacked her own work with a stream of haunting stories from New Zealanders facing deportation in Australia. Locked-up in detention centres, sometimes for years, their voices usually don’t travel further than their cells—here, however, their text messages flashed across a screen, interrupting footage of a Champagne-filled glass slipper bubbling over.
And now, for the first time, VICE can share some of these messages outside the exhibition and shed light upon the distressing toll Australia’s immigration laws are taking.
Titled 501s, Donaldson’s work was shown at the Melbourne Art Fair and is named after the controversial section of Australia’s immigration policy that was changed in 2014. Now, any foreigner who has served at least 12 months in prison—which can be an accumulation of minor sentences—can be deported. In some cases, however, no crime needs to be committed at all. People can be thrown out of a country they call home if they don't pass a "character test". This was the case for Ko Haapu, a former New Zealand soldier who is locked out of Australia for simply being associated with a motorbike gang suspected of criminal activity.
Since the change, New Zealanders have quickly become the largest group in detention centres across the ditch; prior to it, Kiwis weren’t even in the top 10. As of July this year, more than 1300 New Zealanders have been forced out of Australia, and ABC reported that another 15,000 could be deported over the next decade. Some have lived in Australia since they were just months old and have no family ties, nor any realistic opportunities, awaiting them in what is essentially a foreign land.
Through collaboration with advocacy group Iwi n Aus, the exhibition gave detainees the chance to send text messages revealing the anguish this law has forced them to endure. Up until a month before Donaldson’s show, Border Force often denied detainees access to their phones claiming they were being used to commit crimes. But this ended when the Federal Court ruled they could not mandatorily confiscate them. “When they got their phones back, it was pure synchronicity,” said Donaldson. “It was just pure luck.” Although the court ruling was perfectly timed, the artist remains tight-lipped about how exactly the 280 detainees were able to reach her.
Anya Weti-Safwan was among the detainees who used the exhibition to share their battle with the unforgiving policy. The 36-year-old mother has lived in Australia since she was three, her six-year-old daughter and husband are both Australian citizens, and her wider family all live there too. But a series of minor offences, the worst of which were shoplifting and theft, have seen her torn from her family indefinitely.
Weti-Safwan’s criminal record stemmed from a heroin addiction, a habit she has now kicked. But after failing the “character test”, she was deemed a “threat to national security” and was detained for three-and-a-half years at Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney.
Things took a turn for the worse when she was transferred to another detention facility in Melbourne. In the 15 months she has been there so far, Weti-Safwan has seen her young daughter only once, as her Sydney-based family cannot afford to visit regularly.
Donaldson was told the detainees were excited to share their stories through her work. “They felt that they were seen. Because they just feel like no one gives a shit about them, they are so isolated.”
Hundreds of heartbreaking messages flooded the exhibition live, completely uncensored, interrupting the champagne-shoe image. (It was drawn from Madame Clicquot’s excessive publicity stunt at the Carnival of Venice in the 1600s, where she filled a large glass high-heel shoe with expensive Champagne so people could swim in it.) Donaldson describes the work as a dark contrast between luxury and reality. “It is quite a sexual and seductive image, but the texts are far more contemporary than this excess luxury. They wake you up and say ‘oh, here is the reality of it,’” she explains. “They are interrupting an excessive, thoughtless process.”
The Auckland artist says art should not shy away from criticising politics. “When art shines a light on these things, that is when we can apply pressure. People in power have to own it if there is light on it,” she said.
“In my observations culture often changes before politics. We saw this groundswell of cultural change with queer rights, now it’s legal to be gay, but once it was a crime for two men to have sex. Culture often changes before politics, forcing legislation. So if artwork changes peoples cultural positioning then the rest follows. And that's why I think artists now have to take this responsibility seriously.”
Shortly after Donaldson’s exhibition, New Zealand Justice Minister Andrew Little ripped into Australia’s deportation law, saying it lacked “humanitarian ideals” and was a “breach of human rights”.
During an appearance on ABC’s Foreign Correspondent Show Little said, "detention for that length of time without charge... I can't think of another liberal democratic country like New Zealand, like Australia, like many other Western countries in the world, where that would be tolerated."
His comments triggered a scathing attack from Peter Dutton, Australia’s Immigration Minister at the time and a vocal advocate for the deportation reform. Dutton told Little he should “reflect" on the trans-Tasman relationship before repeating his disapproval of the policy.
"They're New Zealand citizens, they're not Australian citizens, and it's no breach of human rights," he told ABC. "In fact, it's a breach of civil rights of Australians who fall victims to these criminals and Australia won't tolerate it." Dutton said Australia needed to "see the evidence instead of the emotions".
But the evidence of how destructive this policy is keeps on growing—at least for New Zealand and the deportees themselves. As of August, 1388 people had been sent back to New Zealand under the reformed policy. More than 3000 crimes have been committed by deportees in New Zealand since 2014 and 99 deportees are currently in jail or remanded in custody. In 2018 alone, deportees have committed almost 1000 offences in Aotearoa.
Filipa Payne, co-founder of Iwi n Aus, told VICE a lack of wraparound care is to blame. Payne assists deportees settle in New Zealand when they are dumped on our shores, often arriving with practically nothing. Payne says that since the amendment of Section 501 New Zealand deportees are given up to just $360 to get them resettled. The individual has no warning of how much they will receive, and she knows of some who have been left with a cheque for just $37. Barely enough to cover the taxi fare to a motel.
Australia Border Force can offer paid accommodation for a week or so, but often this is not the case. Many deportees have only had two or three nights organised for them before being shuffled into boarding houses, like Salvation Army hostels, and essentially left homeless.
“Australia is placing broken and traumatised people here with no finances to see them through. The first three weeks upon deportation are so hard and stressful with next to no money, some people’s despair has led to reoffending and sadly suicide,” said Payne.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has consistently stood by her view that Australia should only deport those with genuine ties to New Zealand because an existing support network means they are less likely to get caught up in the criminal system again. "What we are seeking is to put an end to some of those cases where, from our perspective, it makes no sense for someone who has never stepped foot in New Zealand to be deported here,” Ardern told journalists after a meeting with then Australian Prime Minster, Malcolm Turnbull.
Shortly after labelling herself as an “optimistic realist”, Donaldson went on to say the New Zealand Government needs to do more for deportees. Simply waiting for Australia to change its policy isn’t helping anyone, and who even knows if that day will ever come?
“These are some of the most vulnerable people. Not only are they at the bottom of the food chain in terms of our social system, they also have been literally stripped of their citizenship, and their families,” said Donaldson.
“Even if they are sent back here and the New Zealand Government can't make Australia do the right thing, our Government needs to step up. I don't mean accepting the situation because we need to keep fighting, but they need to take care of these people while we do.”