Long-term Queensland resident Angela Russell was on the verge of release from the Townsville Women's Correctional Centre after serving a required three months of a nine-month prison sentence when she was notified that she faced deportation. The 40-year-old New Zealander, who's lived in Australia for 37 years, was to be sent back to her country of origin, in line with the government's new approach to deportation on "character" grounds.
Since April 17, Angela has been sitting in limbo at Darwin's Wickham Point detention center, awaiting an internal review and hoping to have her visa cancellation revoked, although there's no indication as to when that decision might be made.
Along with hundreds of other non-citizens, Russell has been caught out by tough new changes made to the Migration Act in December last year. Under the Migration Amendment (Character and General Visa Cancellation) Bill 2014, it's now mandatory to send people back to their countries of birth, after being sentenced to terms that total 12 months or more.
Angela is one of 12 Kiwis detained at Wickham Point under similar circumstances. And while these people are convicted criminals, their deportation seems like another part of Australia's growing culture of "us vs. them." It's this mentality that simply tolerates immigrants, rather than seeing them as another part of the multicultural collective we call Australia. And while we shouldn't tolerate law-breaking, surely 37 years in the country means we shoulder some responsibility.
Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton doesn't see it that way. He's said the changes allow for visas of people involved in serious crimes to be canceled, even if many are being deported for accumulated minor offenses. In Russell's case several prior convictions dating back as far as 2008 were taken into account, along with a six-month suspended sentence.
If deported, she'll leave behind her children and be sent to a country where she has no real support. "It's killing me day by day. Why can't I find out if I'm staying here?" Russell asked. "I'm on parole, so why would I run? Why can't I be a mother and go look after my children?"
"People end up being detained in administrative detention, deprived of their liberty, and separated from their family." —Lyma Nguyen
Northern Territory criminal lawyer Lyma Nguyen, who's representing Russell, likened her dealings with the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) to "extracting blood out of a stone." Over past months, they've been reluctant to provide requested information, have yet to assign anyone to preside over the case, and have refused to provide any time frame. "I've been appalled at the way the department has handled this particular case and I'm sure this is not the first or the only case that it's handling in this way," she told VICE.
Nguyen outlined that the amendments broaden the kind of criminal activity captured under the character grounds of the Migration Act, as it's easier for minor offenses to accumulate. "The punitive effect is that people end up being detained in administrative detention, deprived of their liberty, and separated from their family, for the original offense they committed, which they've already served a sentence in prison for."
In 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Committee condemned Australia's practice of deporting non-citizens as a violation of international law. This was in relation to the 2006 deportation of Stefan Nystrom, who'd arrived in the country three weeks after being born and was deported to Sweden at the age of 33. Nystrom had a checkered past, having served numerous terms in Australian prisons. When his visa was canceled, a non-citizen's accumulated sentences had to add up to two or more years to warrant deportation.
Since the December amendments to the Migration Act, mandatory cancellations of visas have skyrocketed. Figures provided by DIBP show that in the year 2014-15 there were 580 cancellations, compared with 76 in 2013-14, an increase of 660 percent. In July of this year, there were 116 mandatory cancellations, compared with 90 in the month prior.
While these changes don't specifically target New Zealanders, they do seem to be having a disproportionate effect on them. At the end of July this year, 166 New Zealanders were in immigration detention centers, compared with a total of 52 deported for the whole of 2014. DIBP reports show that at the end of March, New Zealanders made up 4.5 percent of people in immigration detention and this figure rose to 8.2 percent by July. Whereas prior to this, Kiwis did not make up a significant percentage and were classified under the category of "Other."
Joanne Cox, family support coordinator of advocacy group Oz Kiwi, said the amendments are having a detrimental effect on established families, with many individuals now being deported for minor crimes. "These aren't serious criminals," she pointed out, adding that for people arriving in NZ just out of jail, there's no support "in the way of rehabilitation into the community."
But another criticism leveled at the Australian government's deportation policy is that it's effectively dumping potentially dangerous criminals on other countries' doorsteps. A spokesperson for the DIBP listed the top four offenses that people are being deported for as assault, other violent offenses, drug-related crimes, and child sex offenses.
A spokesperson for the NZ Ministry of Justice stated that while NZ cannot control the increase in deportations from Australia, they have "put in place systems to manage those offenders once they are in NZ." He listed three programs the government has committed to, which include a register of deported offenders, a legislative supervision regime, and a formal arrangement made with Australia to share information about trans-Tasman deportations.
After close to six months of dentition in the harsh conditions of Wickham Point, Russell's had enough. "If I win the case or I'm sent back to NZ, whatever, I'm sick of sitting around waiting," she said. "But if anything happens to my children, I'll hold them responsible."
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