In December 2015, I interviewed a young Aussie who had been deported from his home to New Zealand, the country of his birth. A 501er, as they are known in the Lucky Country.
In the article, I referred to him as Doug for privacy reasons. His real name was Matt and he killed himself last night.
I liked Matt. He was obviously upset and bewildered by his deportation to a country he’d never been to before. He missed his family and he missed his kid. He was naturally guarded about some aspects of his life, but he was open and honest with me about the situation he found himself in.
I know his Kiwi relatives did all they could to help him, but it was never going to be enough. Stuck in a small town, with no honest job prospects, Matt predictably found other ways to make money. A facebook photo a few weeks after he was dumped here in NZ showed him grinning among piles of cash. I had a feeling then that it wasn’t going to end well for Matt. Jail or worse?
Turned out it was worse. Matt was increasingly depressed about his situation and started to steal from family and friends. He was kicked out of accommodation several times. He found work in Wellington but, as I understand it, that ended with him writing off his employer’s car. He was back to zero, in a city where he knew no one.
Matt was certainly no angel. He was a criminal in Australia and it appears he broke the law to survive here in NZ too. But he didn’t deserve to die alone and miserable. His child doesn’t deserve to grow up without his father.
Matt described Aussie Immigration and Border Control Minister Peter Dutton as evil. I’m reminded of the old saying that evil triumphs when good men do nothing. Opinion might divided on whether John Key was ever a ‘good man’, but he certainly did nothing to help Matt or the dozens of other Aussie criminals dumped here because of an accident of birth.
Shame on Dutton. Shame on Key. Shame on the rest of us for staying silent about the gross unfairness of this situation.
The original interview is reproduced below:
In a world awash with people transiting from one country to another, it’s rare to meet someone who has moved involuntarily, under the threat of being shipped from his urban incarceration to a far worse prison island thousands of miles away.
We are sadly familiar with news of migrant families who risk everything to get to a better life.
We are less exposed to the reality of people who have no reasonable option but to leave their families behind, to never again see their home, to lose everything they own, and not even get to hug their child one last time.
But that’s the situation faced by of New Zealand’s newest immigrants. I’m not going to identify him. I’ll call him Doug for the purposes of this post. Doug’s home is Australia, but his passport says he’s a Kiwi. He’s been in New Zealand for a few days, his first time back here since his parents took him across the Tasman as a toddler a couple of decades ago.
He left New Zealand in short pants, and returned in handcuffs, with nothing much more than a bag of clothes and his strong Ocker accent. Doug’s a 501er. A deportee.
Does he want to be here?
Does he fuck.
Doug respects his Kiwi heritage, but his life is in Australia. His mum, his siblings, his son. They’re there, he’s here.
And it’s not bloody fair, mate.
I meet Doug at his rellie’s suburban home in a provincial city. He’s bright, clear eyed and thoughtful. He chain smokes rollies throughout the interview. Afterwards, as I leave, I see him in the backyard, sitting in the sun on a wooden stool, smoking yet another ciggie and texting on a budget cellphone. Not texting anyone here in NZ, obviously. All the Kiwis he knows are in the house behind me.
Curiously, one of the things Doug was given on arrival was a guide on how to deal with the media. There were a couple of journos at the airport, but he gave them the flick. I’m glad he chose to speak to me. I’ve edited some answers to avoid specific identifying details, and while Doug was open and honest with me, I’ve chosen to omit some of the more harrowing aspects of how the process has left him emotionally. All I’ll say is that he’s doing it tough.
I start by asking Doug about his life in Australia.
TRP: Where’s home?
Doug: Sydney, out west. Never even left the state, really. Never been up the east coast or anything.
Were you working?
Yep, owned a business, employed 4 subbies. We supplied goods and services to retailers.
But you ended up in jail. How long for?
I was sentenced to two months, but when I was due for parole, I was told that they were going to send me to NZ and when I said I’d appeal, they said I’d have to serve the parole inside. So they locked me up for the length of the parole period. Another six months.
What happened to the business?
It’s gone. It crumbled. I couldn’t run it from jail and couldn’t sell it from there either. No cellphones, no internet. I was moved around from centre to centre. I couldn’t keep up.
You’ve had some previous issues?
Yep. Look, I grew up in the Western suburbs. It wasn’t easy. It’s tough. I made mistakes, but I paid for them, cleaned up, got it together. I’ve rented a bit, but mostly lived with mum.
Doug and I talk more about his life in Australia. About league, about cricket, about growing up in the vast western suburbs of Sydney. He’s open about going off track as a young man. But he says he’s clean and he looks it. He looks me straight in the eye when he answers questions. No bullshit.
He’s a physically strong young man, fit and quietly powerful in his manner. Not threatening, but self-assured. But that strength disappeared when we talk about his family.
All his siblings are there. His mum. His son. Doug’s boy lives with his ex. She’s since remarried and when I ask him if she’d bring their son to visit him here in NZ, the façade crumbles. It’s obvious that it’s not going to happen. I look at him and wished I hadn’t asked.
TRP: When did you realise you were going to be deported?
Doug: Well, I got some warnings that it might happen in the past, but it didn’t seem real. I wasn’t a rapist or a murderer, y’know? I’m not a threat to national security! And I was over my younger stuff. I just didn’t think it would happen to me.
What’s the mood of the Kiwis in the detention facility?
Frustrated, desperate. It’s not too bad in some ways, better than jail. There’s no work, but there are activities. Family access is better, too. Much better than jail. But it’s hard taking civil action in there. It’s difficult to organise. There’s a lot of depression. The asylum seekers too.
A week ago, in the detention centre, you were given a choice; Christmas Island or NZ. That’s right?
They got a few of us Kiwis together then one by one put papers in front of us. They told us if we didn’t volunteer to be deported to NZ, we’d be off to Christmas Island then and there. I had enough, I signed. I read the papers after I signed.
Why not go to Christmas Island?
Well, we knew a bit about it from guys who’d been in and out of there and from the news. We had TV and some internet access in the detention centre. It wasn’t a good option. My mum made me promise I’d go to NZ if they threatened me with Christmas Island.
We talk for a while about the residency appeal process. Despite John Key’s assurance that the deportees could easily appeal from here, there’s a snag.
First they have to pay back the Australian Federal Government the cost of the flight home.
Not just their flight, but return fares for the two cops who accompany each deportee on the plane. The best part of three grand before they can even get started. That minor detail must have gone down Key’s memory hole.
And the appeal process is deemed to have started when he was first moved to an immigration detention centre.
All the work done on his behalf and all the letters he sent himself from prison didn’t count. He sent dozens of letters fighting for his residency. Immigration claim they only received one. He lost two months of the appeal process without even knowing it.
TRP: When you were given the choice of Christmas Island or voluntary deportation, did you have access to a lawyer?
Doug: No, it was sign or else. No lawyer. I did have help in my residency appeal, but no legal aid. It’s thousands to fight deportation and get residency, $5 -10 thousand minimum. But I think I had nearly got the appeal granted and my residency sorted and maybe that’s why they moved on me in the detention centre.
Did you have reasonable choices?
Not really. It wasn’t so bad in the detention centre because we had better communication, cellphones, but not smartphones, and I could meet the immigration case officer. But I don’t think that would be the case on Christmas Island. The process is designed to break you down. And it did. I was falling apart. So I signed the papers.
Did your family see you off at the airport?
No, they weren’t allowed. I was handcuffed from the centre to the airport and put on the plane. They only took the cuffs off on board. I guess they didn’t want to scare the stewardesses.
Despite John Key’s assurances that leaving Australia is a good option, there is no extra support immediately available. Effectively, it’s just like he’s just been released from a Kiwi prison, but he’s committed no crime here. There is no immediate help for the extraordinary psychological strain he is dealing with. No ongoing counselling, no guidance to orientate him to his new life.
TRP: What did you know about deportation to NZ?
Doug: I saw Key on TV saying it was a good idea to go. He said we could fight it from NZ and we’d be free.
But you’re not free. You have conditions put on you haven’t you? You’re kind of on parole here, aren’t you?
Yep. It’s parole. The guys from Corrections have been good, I think they are sorting a benefit out, but the town I’m in is pretty small. It’s like a farm! And there’s no work. I’ll probably have to move to Wellington or Auckland. I want to work.
How were the police when you arrived?
Good. Really good! The police and the parole people were really helpful. It was funny, really. The police and the corrections guys had the new laws with them at the airport and they had to keep reading them to work out what they were supposed to do. It’s all new to them too.
John Key said you could fight it from NZ. Now that you’re here, do you think that’s realistic?
No, not really. Your chances drop, because you’re no longer a priority. You’re gone.
I met Doug in the provincial city he has been relocated to. He’s being put up by relatives. They’ve never met before, but they are the only people in New Zealand whose names he knows. It’s been weird for them, too. They were vetted by Corrections and their home given the once over. It’s not like they asked to be in this situation, but they’re determined to help.
TRP: What about the locals? Have you been asked why you’re here?
Doug: Actually, a taxi driver asked if I was one of the deported and I also got asked in a coffee shop. I told them I was a tourist.
What would you say to the Australian Government?
Lighten up! Relax the laws, its hurting people who aren’t really a risk. I understand for murderers and serious crims, but … But Turnbull is pretty firm and the immigration minister, Dutton, he’s evil.
What would you say to the NZ Government?
There’s not a lot NZ can do. It’s nothing to do with New Zealand. That meeting (Key and Turnbull) did nothing.
What can ordinary Kiwi’s do?
Not much. In Oz there’s a facebook page, iwi, which has some good stuff and there was Kelvin.
Kelvin Davis? The MP?
Yep. I heard he went to Christmas Island. But there’s not much Kiwis can do, really.
Doug does have the support of his relatives here in NZ. But he’s staying with people he’s never previously met. They’re his blood, but they’re strangers, too. I’m struck by just how wonderful it is that they would take him in. They’re not judging him, they’re not prying into his life. They’re just there for him because it’s the right thing to do.
But they’re not counsellors, and it’s pretty clear that being exiled from all he knows is taking a toll on Doug. He’s bewildered by what’s happened, unsure of what his future will be and he is desperately missing his family.
Everything Doug knew, loved and relied on is gone from his life.
He’s a stranger in a strange land, a man alone.
TRP: Is this fair? The deportation?
Doug. No. Definitely not.
What do you want to do?
I want to go home.