Holding Kiwis in detention centres is inhumane and our Govt’s response has been feeble.

A tiny inkblot of land a few hundred kilometres south of Jakarta, Christmas Island has been called the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean, such is its breadth of wildlife and biodiversity.

So named because it was first sighted on Christmas Day, 1643, the island rarely enjoys good press these days, however, having instead become infamous as the site of one of Australia's scandal-ridden detention centres for asylum seekers.

Dwindling numbers of boat people led the Australian Government to announce in May last year that the facility would close. Good riddance, was the response from the president of the Christmas Island shire; the centre had been a "disaster for the island".

Rather than shutting its doors, the Australians have turned it into a different kind of sorting house for the ostracised.

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Incarcerated today on the island are asylum seekers who have been transferred from other centres following transgressions, as well as criminals who have completed their sentences and will be deported.

The numbers for deportation have swollen rapidly after a law, one of a slew of tough new measures, that means any non-citizen sentenced to more than 12 months' prison can be expelled.

Hundreds of New Zealand citizens meet these criteria, even though many have spent almost all their lives in Australia.

Despite having served their time in prison, they find themselves again caged, this time in one of a network of detention centres - places that have attracted years of controversy amid allegations of sexual and other physical abuse, inhumane living conditions, rampant self-harming and woeful medical care.

(No prizes for guessing who runs the centres, on the mainland and Christmas Island: the same multinational recently suspended from running Mt Eden prison in Auckland: Serco.)

An inquiry by Australia's Human Rights Commission found children who had been held on Christmas Island were "in a state of gross neglect".

Last year, a detailed, 92-page letter signed by 15 doctors who had worked at Christmas Island condemned "numerous unsafe practices and gross departures from generally accepted medical standards".

About 200 NZ citizens are believed to be in detention awaiting deportation - but that could grow beyond 1000, according to civil rights lawyers. Photo / Getty
About 200 NZ citizens are believed to be in detention awaiting deportation - but that could grow beyond 1000, according to civil rights lawyers. Photo / Getty

Australia has, it should be noted, taken action to staunch these revelations. But how?

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By introducing legal sanctions for detention centre employees who speak out.

The UN special rapporteur on human rights of migrants this week abandoned a trip to Christmas Island, having been refused a guarantee that staff could talk to him without fear of legal retaliation.

About 200 New Zealand citizens are believed to be in detention awaiting deportation - but that could grow beyond 1000, according to civil rights lawyers, who note that even those who served sentences a long time ago could be rounded up.

By some estimates close to 100 New Zealanders have been flown to Christmas Island, two and a half times as far from Sydney as Sydney is from Auckland.

The Sydney Morning Herald managed to speak to one.

Ricardo Young, a 29-year-old who moved from New Zealand to Australia when he was 4, considers himself Australian and has a partner and a 5-year-old daughter in Sydney.

Having served a two-year sentence for aggravated robbery and assault, he was sent to a detention centre in Sydney.

Five weeks later, after a 3am raid by police in riot gear, he was transported to Christmas Island, where he has remained for a week in conditions which he says are much worse than prison.

"If I do go back to New Zealand, there's no point living in this world," he told the paper.

"My family is everything to me."

Meanwhile, Junior Togatuki took his own life while being held in solitary confinement in a mainland prison awaiting deportation.

The 23-year-old, who had schizophrenia, had arrived in Australia as a 4-year-old, and reportedly wrote to family in his own blood expressing terror at the idea of being sent to a country where he had no friends or family.

New Zealand should be denouncing conditions in Australian detention camps regardless of who is held there, but the presence of New Zealand citizens takes it into altogether different territory.

"We are more than friends, we are family."

So said Tony Abbott, the recently deposed prime minister, of the transtasman bond this year.

John Key's assured that we needn't worry because Foreign Minister Murray McCully had sent his Aussie counterpart a text message. Photo / United Nations
John Key's assured that we needn't worry because Foreign Minister Murray McCully had sent his Aussie counterpart a text message. Photo / United Nations

The idea of a special relationship, codified in Closer Economic Relations but forged emotionally over decades in war and peace, looks as solid as a damp pavlova in light of Australia's harsh and cavalier treatment of New Zealand citizens, who have, remember, been punished by the law already.

Recognising, presumably, growing public concern, John Key's initial assurance that we needn't worry because Foreign Minister Murray McCully had sent his Aussie counterpart a text message - an angry-face emoji, maybe? - has shifted up a few gears, with McCully having since met Julie Bishop in New York, and the Prime Minister saying he'd delivered her a "pretty blunt" message.

But New Zealand's response has nevertheless been indefensibly sluggish and feeble.

Why has the Australian High Commissioner not been symbolically hauled in to the Beehive to explain? Where are the formal statements of concern?

The official press release web-pages for McCully, for Key, and for Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse, between them contain precisely zero words of alarm or condemnation.

Peter Dunne, a man hardly known for histrionics, filled the gap with a statement upbraiding a foreign policy that has "become craven and too trade-focused and lacking a moral compass".

He added: "Relying on quiet words in diplomatic ears; nods and winks; pull-asides; text messages, or whatever, is not the way to conduct foreign policy. It is time to abandon the chin-dripping subservience we are lapsing into."

Dunne, the Minister of Internal Affairs, detected a pattern of "appallingly tardy" foreign policy responses, including the Syrian refugee crisis and in the case of the Kiwi jailed in Myanmar for insulting Buddha.

In the absence of any discernible moral leadership or backbone, our foreign policy, if not policy more generally, looks increasingly like a wilting windsock of public opinion.

The new Australian PM, Malcolm Turnbull, has fallen over himself to express his admiration for the leadership style of John Key and his powers of persuasion.

Key now has an opportunity to persuade his admirer that such brutal and contemptuous treatment of New Zealanders, criminal record or not, is absolutely, unambiguously, not the way you deal with your friends, let alone your family.