The number of Kiwis being deported from Australia under its controversial “501″ policy appears to have declined dramatically in recent months, with experts saying it speaks to the current positive relations between the two countries ahead of a “significant” further announcement expected around citizenship pathways.
It follows an agreement between former prime minister Jacinda Ardern and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in July last year that Australia would adopt a “common sense approach” to deportations, which disproportionately impact New Zealanders.
Albanese also promised at the time to announce improved pathways to citizenship and permanent residency by Anzac Day 2023, which has long been a sore point in relations and which experts say will also help reduce the number of deportations in the long term.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins travels to Australia this weekend to meet with Albanese, where he says he expects a “significant” policy change to be announced.
New Zealanders and Australians have been free to travel between and live and work indefinitely in each other’s countries since 1973, however the rights afforded in each country differ greatly.
Under the current rules, Australians coming to New Zealand can get permanent residency automatically after two years, provided they don’t leave the country, and have the right to become citizens after five years.*
Meanwhile, most Kiwis in Australia are on a special category visa, and their path to residency and citizenship is similar to any other migrant - costly, and not guaranteed. This denies access to a wide range of social supports - including the right to vote - which are much easier for Australians to attain in New Zealand.
‘Corrosive’ 501 deportation policy appears to be softening
Due to those difficulties in getting citizenship and the sheer number of Kiwis living in Australia - about 700,000 - New Zealanders make up the most significant proportion of those deported, nearly 3000 since 2015.
The “501″ policy is a nickname for Section 501 of Australia’s Migration Act, under which the minister can refuse or cancel visas on character grounds if someone has “a substantial criminal record” or has been sentenced to imprisonment for a period of 12 months or longer.
The deportations, often of people who have lived much of their lives in Australia and with no connections in New Zealand, became a sore point in relations between the countries, reaching a low in 2021 when Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton referred to the policy as “taking out the trash”.
Ardern called the policy “corrosive” in relations between the countries.
Deportees have also been linked to a rise in gang activity in New Zealand and an increase in crime. The latest figures show since 2015, 1326 of the people deported from Australia had since been convicted of 11,301 offences, including over 1900 violent offences.
Following Albanese’s statement last year, an official ministerial direction in March now means in deportation decisions, “the duration of stay in Australia is taken into account, along with the strength of an individual’s ties to Australia”.
While that directive only officially came into place recently, data released to the Herald by New Zealand Police shows a significant decline in deportations since that July meeting.
In March this year, 11 people were deported to New Zealand from Australia, with monthly numbers back to August in the teens, aside from a figure of 30 people in October.
This compares to averages of between 30 and the mid-40s in the pre-Covid years. While deportations continued through Covid-19, they were heavily affected by the border closures, with seven months between March 2020 and February 2022 seeing zero deportations.
Governments on both sides of the Tasman have declined to comment to the Herald, saying it is “too early” to say if the policy had an impact, while advocates working in the area are cautiously welcoming the reduction.
Reduction ‘welcome’, wider citizenship pathways and rights for Kiwis in Oz needed
Long-time 501 deportee rights advocate Filipa Payne said it was “great” to see a decline, but there remained many issues. She was also wary of the fact it was a policy change, not a law change, and thus could easily be reversed.
“We still have people coming here who have spent most of their lives in Australia.
“We want to see Christmas Island [detention centre] closed completely and families reconnected. This does not make up for the damage done and the damage still to be done.”
Payne said people coming to New Zealand here lacked social support, with many falling back into crime.
Payne said one example was the fact many had their driver’s licences expire while in detention and faced hurdles renewing them while not in Australia.
Data released to the Herald showed traffic offences made up more than 2200, or one-fifth, of the offence convictions.
Former prison gang leader David Obeda was deported from Australia in 2018 under the 501 policy after having spent over six years in jail. While he was born in New Zealand, he moved to Australia as a child and had most of his family and connections there.
Obeda said he was fortunate his father was still in New Zealand and was able to help get him into work and away from the criminal world.
“It was pretty rough in the beginning, but I was able to overcome it. A large majority don’t and end up back in crime.”
Obeda, who recently travelled to the United Nations with Payne to call out Australia’s immigration policies, said it was a positive step to see deportations decrease, but there needed to be better support for those still being deported to help with integrating and moving away from crime.
They were also calling for an apology, accountability and financial compensation for those affected.
Gold Coast-based New Zealander and New Zealand rights advocate Vicky Rose said there had been a positive shift since Albanese was elected last year.
Rose said the biggest issue facing New Zealanders in Australia was the lack of rights and pathways to citizenship, which was closely related to the deportations.
“We have people who have lived here 30-odd years, but then they might get into trouble, and there is no support for them, from welfare through to housing.
“In times of crisis, they are missing out on interventions and preventative support. And that eventually pushes them into a space of poverty and crime, and then ultimately to being deported.”
Rose said those deportations then had ripple effects, splitting up families and leading to intergenerational issues.
Rose said she was optimistic the upcoming announcement would address their main concerns.
“We are just after reciprocal rights.”
Melbourne-based lawyer and spokesman for the Australian Lawyers Alliance, Greg Barns SC, said a reduction in deportations was “welcome news”, but they were cautious.
“Recently, I came across a case where a person had lived their whole life except two years in Australia and they were still deported.
“So, we’re optimistic, but it needs a bit more time to see if it is a reflection of the new policy.”
Barns said any improvement in pathways for New Zealanders to get citizenship would help address the issue of deportations in the long-term.
Positive relations, advocacy behind changes
University of Otago Professor Robert Patman said the recent movement on these contentious issues reflected a positive state of relations between New Zealand and Australia and persistent advocacy.
“Part of it is that there are two Labour governments seeing eye to eye.
“But I do think previous prime minister Jacinda Ardern ruffled a few feathers with her speech in 2020.
“[Ardern] went over the head of the Australian government and appealed directly to the Australian people.
“I think it was tough but clever politics, and set in motion the ability for Australia to rethink the policies.”
Hipkins this week told TVNZ he expected a “reasonably significant announcement” this weekend to “improve the pathways for the New Zealanders who are living and working in Australia”, saying the two governments had been working on the issue “for some time”.
Hipkins will be joined on the trip across the Tasman by Trade Minister Damien O’Connor and a large business delegation with senior Māori representatives.
The trip is also to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Closer Economic Relations free trade agreement ahead of Anzac Day on April 25.
* Article updated 11.30am, Friday, April 21, 2023, to clarify that Australians must reside in New Zealand for two years to get residency.