Editorial: Detention report should disturb Australia

A view of a part of the Construction camp detention center on Christmas Island, Australia. Photo / Getty Images
A view of a part of the Construction camp detention center on Christmas Island, Australia. Photo / Getty Images

It may be good news that Australia's Commonwealth Ombudsman has criticised its immigration authorities for keeping people too long in detention centres awaiting deportation.

At last report there 1414 detainees and 184 were New Zealanders. The next most common nationality among them was Iranian. Ombudsman Colin Neave has found the majority of those held for "unnecessarily prolonged" periods were New Zealanders.

As New Zealanders are well aware, but probably Australians are not, many of these people are not New Zealanders in any real sense. They may have been born here and have never qualified for Australian citizenship but they have grown up in Australia, formed all their associations there, speak with Australian accents, regard themselves as Australian and have little emotional or social connection with the country they are being sent to.

They may have committed a crime carrying a prison sentence of a year or more, but some of them have not been found guilty.

The Ombudsman has highlighted a case of a school student who had his visa cancelled when he was accused of unlawful sexual connection. The charges against him were withdrawn in October, 2015 but he was not released from detention until September last year.

Another case involved a man whose visa was cancelled after he was convicted for shoplifting. He was not sentenced to prison but he was still in an immigration detention centre more than a year later.

Clearly the Australian immigration department has been given a task it struggles to manage in the name of cleansing the country of non-citizens with a certain criminal record. The department cannot even manage to cancel visas while the person is still in prison so that their appeal against deportation can be heard without further detention.

The injustices highlighted by the Ombudsman and the unnecessary cost to Australian taxpayers might penetrate Australian public opinion in a way that publicity about the detainees' plight and representations from the New Zealand Government has failed to do.

Not even John Key's rapport with Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser could break through the Australian resolve. Turnbull undertook to put more resources into processing appeals more quickly but the number of "New Zealanders" in detention centres has not declined significantly since.

With about 1000 detainees expected to arrive in New Zealand over the next five years, and several hundred already here, this country has set up a support service for them and police and the Corrections Department have been funded for their likely re-offending. Since they arrive with a bitter sense of injustice, having served time for their crime, and with no family of employment in New Zealand, re-offending is highly likely.

The parole-like system the Government has set up to monitor them after they arrive is said to be reducing the risk. But these people are products of Australian society and Australia's responsibility. The failings the Ombudsman has found should disturb the Australian sense of fair play.

- NZ Herald

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