Why Australia Keeps Clashing With New Zealand Over Deportation

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In 2015, Chris Brown wanted to tour in Australia, but he wasn’t allowed to.    

His visa application to enter Australia was denied because of the criminal conviction he got for violently assaulting his then girlfriend Rihanna.   

That meant he failed something called the character test, which Australia uses to figure out who can and can’t enter the country.   

The Chris Brown story made headlines all over the world because it was, and still is, kind of rare for high-profile celebrities to be denied entry into Australia.   

But criminals get deported all the time, as a way to protect the national security of Australia.   

That deportation system has been under fire recently, so much so that it’s elevated tensions between Australia and New Zealand.   

Because, over decades, the way our deportation system has developed means that a large proportion of the people being deported, are Kiwis.   

Australia And Deportation 

Deciding who can or can’t live in Australia, pretty much started from the moment British colonists set foot in this country, but our strict migration and citizenship laws only started when Australia became a federation in 1901.    

Australian officials had become worried about immigrants travelling from overseas to come and live in what they saw as ‘their’ country, so they introduced the Immigration Restriction Act, which is infamously known as the White Australia Policy.   

Back then, it didn’t necessarily matter to officials if immigrants were criminals or not, just as long as they were white.   

The White Australia Policy didn’t have a character test like the one Chris Brown failed, but it did have this thing called a dictation test.   

The dictation test was mandatory for all non-European people wanting to migrate to Australia and as part of the test, applicants would have to write out a 50-word passage dictated to them in any European language. Someone from China, for example, could’ve been asked to write 50 words in French.   

The test was extremely unfair and was really just a way for Australia to set up people to fail if they were from countries that were seen as undesirable.  That meant they could be denied entry and deported.   

As Australia’s deportation system evolved, that prejudice against ‘undesirable’ immigrants was repurposed time and time again, under different policies, like the introduction of the character test under Section 501 of the Migration Act in 1958.   

Section 501 and its character test were brought in as a new way for the Department of Home Affairs to either refuse or cancel a visa.   

The three main reasons for not passing the character test – which still apply today – are if the person has a criminal record, if they’re seen as a danger to national security, or literally if the Minister just decides that the applicant is not of good character.   

Section 501 Of The Migration Act 

When it was first brought in Section 501 was rigorous, and sometimes led to unfair treatment of individuals who weren’t harmful at all, like Dr Mohammed Haneef in 2007.    

Dr. Haneef was arrested at Brisbane airport because police thought he was part of a London Bomb plot. The Indian born doctorwho was living and working in Queensland at the timehad his visa cancelled on character grounds. Twelve days later all charges against him were dropped.   

The case highlighted big flaws in Section 501, and Australian authorities copped a lot of heat for it.   

But terrorism was becoming an increasing threat in the Western world, and Australia started prioritising national security risks pretty much over everything else.   

In 2014, the government made huge amendments to Section 501 and its character test. Those changes weren’t just about trying to stop potential criminals coming into Australia, they were a crackdown on the criminals who were already here.   

The 2014 amendments brought in a mandatory visa cancellation for any person who was sentenced to prison for 12 months or more, which could be applied retrospectively.   

They also introduced even stricter requirements for the character test, and Section 501 with all of those amendments still stands today.   

The number of visa cancellations under Section 501 went from 76 in 2013-2014, to 983 in 2015.  That number has grown to roughly 2,000 people in the last six years.   

The impacts of the 2014 changes were, and still are, massive. But they have hit one demographic particularly hard: New Zealanders.   

Australia, New Zealand And Deportation  

Rebecca Powell (Monash Migration and Inclusion Centre): “Why New Zealanders are getting caught up as largest nationality group under Section 501 deportations, is quite simply they’re one of the largest migrant groups residing in Australia.” 

As close allies and big trading partners, New Zealand and Australia have always had a unique relationship.     

Under the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement Australian and New Zealand citizens were allowed to enter each other’s country to visit, live, and work indefinitely.   

So, that’s exactly what we started doing. By 1996 there were roughly 291,000 New Zealand-born people living in Australia.   

But in 2001, Australia brought in regulations that made it harder for New Zealanders to gain full Australian citizenship. It’s why most New Zealanders who live here are non-citizens on temporary or permanent visas.   

That makes them just as vulnerable to Section 501’s hardline stance on criminality and deportation as someone from any other country.   

What’s unfolded is a system where people who’ve built their entire lives in Australia are being deported indefinitely, and New Zealand’s government is being left to figure out how to support them.   

RP: “These are long-term residents of Australia. They don’t necessarily even identify as New Zealander, apart from having a passport that says that they are … They are barred from entering Australia for life. So, they’re not able to return for significant events like weddings or birthdays or even unfortunately for funerals.” 

Kiwis who are deported under the Section 501 system are, technically, criminals. But the way that the system impacts them can be unnecessarily dehumanising. 

Some people are completely unaware that they will be transferred to detention centers as soon as they finish their prison sentence, and the whole system can have devastating consequences on people’s mental health.   

RP: “Some of the New Zealanders I interviewed had witnessed horrific events and activities in those detention centers, including self-harm and suicides of other detainees. 

Deporting Our People And Our Problems 

On a visit to Australia last year, Jacinda Ardern made it extremely clear how she felt about the Section 501 deportation system.   

She told the Australian government not to deport your people, and your problems, and spoke about how the political relationship between the two countries was being tested.   

A recent Channel Nine segment really exacerbated some of the growing tensions between New Zealand and Australia. In the segment, Channel Nine was given exclusive access to Kiwi deportees being led to a plane.   

The segment also included a quote from the now Minister for Defence, Peter Dutton, who described the system as “taking out the trash”.   

It led to Dutton, and Section 501, receiving a lot of criticism, which was worsened when it emerged that another recent flight had a boy being deported on it who was only 15-years-old.   

Human rights lawyers and politicians in New Zealand think the incident should be raised with the United Nations, because of human rights violations.   

The Takeaway  

Really, Australia has always grappled with who to define as Australian. It’s been to the detriment of First Nations Peoples, and it has also impacted immigrants and refugees wanting to build a life here. But one of the biggest criticisms of our deportation system is that it’s deporting criminals who are technically Australian, and our government is just kind of pretending that they’re not.