Editorial: Australian immigration policies are needlessly inhumane

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The Press: Editorial

Brook Mitchell

An Australian man protests against his country’s immigration policy in Sydney in June 2016. New reports show that many are being kept too long in detention centres.

Australia’s immigration policies have become notorious for New Zealanders. We have heard many stories of those who have become victims of a brutal and inflexible system.

Australian law was amended in 2014 to allow for the deportation of those who fail a “character test”. Foreign-born nationals who spent more than 12 months in prison automatically fail. More controversially still, it can affect those who are merely deemed to have associated with criminal activity, such as war veteran Ko Haapu, who was sent back to New Zealand in 2016.

There was the sad case of Junior Togatuki who died in solitary confinement in a Sydney prison in 2015 as he waited to be deported. Togatuki had lived in Australia since he was 4 and had written to Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton before his death: “All my family live here in Australia. This is our home. Not New Zealand.”

Only weeks after Togatuki died in prison, former Prime Minister John Key said that he would raise the issue of deportations with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull but would not get Turnbull in “an armlock” over it. If there is an opposite of talking tough, this was it.

But would any pressure or persuasion have changed Turnbull and Dutton’s minds? The Australian government’s unyielding position since 2014 is that it makes no apologies for enacting policies that “further protect the Australian community” from refugees and asylum seekers as well as former criminals and others. When criticisms of Australia’s tough immigration policies have been made on this side of the Tasman, one response has been that the country is free to decide its own laws. Too bad if we in New Zealand happen to disapprove.

Which is true, up to a point. But reports released this week by Australia’s Commonwealth Ombudsman Colin Neave have shown once again that immigration policies do not just create the potential for abuse but that human rights abuses have almost become an inevitable feature of the process.

New Zealanders are the most likely to be affected by the policy of deporting citizens of other countries who have committed crimes resulting in more than 12 months’ imprisonment. More than half of those who had their visas cancelled in Australia between 2014 and 2016 were from New Zealand – 697 people out of a total of 1219.

The policy has been dramatically expanded. There were just 76 deportations in 2013-14, according to Neave’s findings. In the last financial year, the number jumped to 983.

The reports also showed that delays in the system have meant that New Zealanders and others have spent needlessly long periods of time in Australian detention centres. Neave called for new standard timeframes to avoid unnecessary imprisonment.

His reports also revealed that the federal government had not cancelled visas far enough ahead of the release of prisoners, which undermined a policy of “giving primary consideration to the best interests of those who have young children and/or experience prolonged family separation”.

In short, a policy that was already controversial and inhumane has been made even tougher on children and families as well as those who have been detained.