AUCKLAND, New Zealand – Back in the day, Aydan Brown and his musical crew, Rekollect, were performing stage shows in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and even opening for Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Born in Rotorua, New Zealand, Brown moved to Australia as a toddler. Now 35, he is back in New Zealand after being deported by the Australian government.
“I smoked a lot of drugs and had some good times when I stuck to my music career, and some bad times,” Brown told VICE World News. “I suppose the music was the good bit, the pinnacle of our lives. And yeah, one thing leads back to another. Jail led me here.”
Brown is a “501,” the colloquial term given to over 2,500 people sent “back” to New Zealand from Australia since 2015, deported under Section 501 of Australia’s Migration Act because the person either fails the Act’s character test, has a new criminal charge, or simply hangs around with the wrong crowd.
Like Brown, many 501s have lost their identity as Māori, the Indigenous people of New Zealand, and mostly think of themselves as Australian – usually because they migrated to Australia as children and have never known any other identity. This makes their deportation, to a country they’ve barely even known, that much harder.
Kylie, 40, also fits the bill.
Kylie – who doesn’t want to share her last name, concerned it will upset the progress of her personal injury claim against the Queensland Government for abuse suffered in youth detention facilities – settled in Australia in 1989 with her family, when the country had a warm immigration agreement with New Zealand.
There were good things during her Cairns upbringing – work on fishing trawlers, having five children – though Kylie’s life was irreversibly impacted by alcoholism, intravenous drugs, meth, and violence against her and her kids. Kylie was imprisoned in Australia then deported with fraud and dishonesty charges, and “hit an all-time low” after settling in Wellington in 2017, where she received fresh convictions for shoplifting and dishonesty. “I could have had home detention but I asked the judge to put me in prison. I wanted rehabilitation in prison because the waiting list [for rehab] out here in the community would have been 9 to 12 months.”
Kylie was eventually able to turn her life around, and is currently a youth worker.
“Being a 501, it’s a stigma, it attaches my past to me. That character isn’t the person who I am today. I’ve made a fresh start here but if people found out about my past they’d look at me differently.”
Section 501 of Australia’s 1958 Migration Act provides that a person does not pass the character test if they fall within any of the grounds of five broad categories: substantial criminal record; conviction for immigration detention offences; association with persons suspected of engaging in criminal conduct; past and present criminal or general conduct; and/or significant risk of particular types of future conduct.
These black marks all make a person eligible to have their visa revoked – which has tripped up thousands of Britons, Irish, Pacific Islanders, and people from Vietnam, China and elsewhere who have lived in Australia but never acquired Australian citizenship.
Worst-hit are New Zealanders, who consistently top annual deportation reports. From 2014 to February 2019 alone, over 1,600 New Zealanders were deported from Australia. In the same period, New Zealand deported just eight Australians.
Today, about 650,000 New Zealanders are living in Australia (compared with 62,000 Australians in New Zealand) which “reflects the greater economic and employment opportunities available — or perceived to be available — in the larger economy across the ditch,” said Katherine Smits, associate professor in Politics and International Relations of the University of Auckland.
The policy is perfectly legal – after all, it’s not citizens being deported, only permanent residents and visa holders – but the deportations are hugely controversial.
Deportees interviewed in the New Zealand cities of Dunedin, Christchurch and Auckland told VICE World News their deportation often occurred after they had served their prison term then been held in an immigration detention facility, and said the deportations appear to be extra punishment on top of the corrections process, after they’ve already served time.
The deportations can be traced back to Australia’s Liberal-led government installing a centre-right immigration outlook since 2013, following which deportations increased 600% in the first year, from 76 in 2013-14 to 580 in 2014-15, further increasing to 983 in 2015-16.
In 2019, Australia’s government introduced a bill to strengthen the character test after much controversy. However, this bill was criticised by the Law Council of Australia, which said visa cancellations “will almost always have a profound impact on the lives of individuals and their families, and…should be administered cautiously…with appropriate safeguards in place.”
The Australian government has since reintroduced the bill with updates, adding “character concern” as a deportable offence, and allowing family violence and “harm to another person’s mental health” as designated offences.
Defending the attempt to increase 501 powers through the bill, new Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews told Tasmanian radio station LAFM on February 15 that the government hopes to make it possible for “foreign nationals” to be deported on character grounds if they receive less than 12 months prison for a crime which might otherwise have at least two years prison time.
For now, the number of deportations shows no signs of stopping.
Being deported is a human rights abuse, according to many 501s.
Most 501s interviewed for this story told VICE World News they want the right to return home to Australia as their first compensation. Many are seeking limited visiting rights – especially to attend family funerals or visit their children, many of whom remain in Australia. Most want Christmas Island Detention Centre – located thousands of kilometres northwest of Perth where there have been rife allegations of human rights violations – and other immigration centres, permanently closed. Many hope for financial compensation for having their careers and lives derailed.
Helping the 501s towards these goals is the focus of campaigner Filipa Payne.
In 2014, when Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton became synonymous with 501 deportations, Payne was a stranger to the world of Trans-Tasman politics.
A beneficiary of Australia’s formerly generous migration policy – which for decades had allowed New Zealanders to live and work in Australia with more freedom than any other migrant group – Payne was a 42-year-old netball referee and preschool teacher enjoying life in Ballarat, Victoria with her Kiwi husband and five children.
Payne moved back to New Zealand in the summer of 2015 after her marriage ended, but before she did, found herself attending protests against the Dutton-led deportations.
The former political novice went from a helper to a leader, joining visits to Kiwis in immigration detention centres in seven states, going as far as Christmas Island twice, and forming an advocacy group.
Payne says she founded Route 501 Advocacy and Support Limited “to help people navigate the horrific regime of Australian immigration detention centres.”
Today, she is working closely with Kiwi lawyers to pursue a class action lawsuit. The suit aims to overturn deportations and close the immigration detention centre on Christmas Island. One lawyer, Craig Tuck, started working to formulate a legal road map, a potential strategy to get 501s compensated and potentially get them back home to Australia.
“It’s time we try to get government in New Zealand to stand up and represent our people, because the government has fallen short, so we are taking a class lawsuit against the Australian government, members of parliament, and Serco, who run detention centres,” Payne told VICE World News.
“The lawsuit also challenges banks in Australia who are holding on to [deported] people’s money and making it unobtainable. We’re also confronting the New Zealand government, for lack of duty of care.”
It appears powerful people may be starting to pay attention.
On February 28, 2020, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern publicly challenged Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison over Section 501 deportations, although her messaging, critics argue, only served to exacerbate the stigma 501s already face. “It is having a social impact on New Zealand, it is having an impact on gangs in New Zealand and it is impacting our relationship (with Australia),” she said at the time. Morrison responded saying he had no intention of changing the policy.
Since then, 501s have increasingly been in New Zealand news reports, often around gun violence associated with the Australian-derived Mongols and Comancheros gangs. But in December 2021, the sudden death of Shane Martin – a well-known 501 and father of Australian professional footballer Dustin Martin – elicited widespread anger and frustration, garnering much-needed attention towards their plight. The older Martin died alone on his kitchen floor of a suspected heart attack after he had been deported from Australia on “bad character” grounds in 2016, because of his membership of the Rebels motorcycle club – though he hadn’t received any associated criminal charges.
Australia continues to maintain stern deportation policies. At the frontline is Karen Andrews, the country’s Home Affairs Minister since 2020, and who in January made headlines, having been embroiled in a battle to deport World Tennis number one Novak Djokovic. The saga also raised awareness on refugees who have languished in immigration-limbo for years, after Djokovic was sent to the same facility where they have been staying.
Andrews has been working with Australian Immigration Minister Alex Hawke to try to overturn the landmark high court decision which deemed that Aboriginal Australians cannot be declared aliens and cannot be deported. By April 2021, at least nine people had been released from immigration detention, including Daniel Love and Brendan Thoms, whose case established the legal precedent the government hopes to overturn. Love and Thoms were both born overseas with one Aboriginal Australian parent and both identify as Aboriginal. In November 2021, Australia’s Federal Court had also ordered the release of Shayne Paul Montgomery, a former New Zealander who identifies as a member of the Mununjali people.
In response to questions from VICE World News about the forthcoming lawsuit from 501s, the Australian Border Force said in an emailed statement, “The Australian Government has a responsibility to protect the community from the risk of harm arising from foreign nationals who choose to engage in criminal activity.”
“Individuals detained and removed by the ABF include those who have been convicted of crimes involving serious assault, sexual offences, sexually based crimes involving a child, drugs, robbery and other violent offences. These individuals are a risk to the Australian community and have lost their right to remain in the country,” the statement said. “The Australian Government will respond to any legal action if and when it is initiated.”
ABF further emphasised that “where unlawful non-citizens have exhausted all administrative, procedural and legal avenues, and have no lawful basis for remaining in Australia, they are expected to depart.” It added that they are free to pursue legal avenues having “voluntarily returned to New Zealand.”
While stuck in New Zealand and pining for the best aspects of his old life in Australia, Aydan Brown is making the most of a kind of stoic acceptance of his fate.
Now in Hamilton, Brown works as an aluminum joiner and installer. “I’m happy to be home,” he said.
Home is a funny term for it. While he is working towards building a new life in the country he was born, Brown is tormented by not being able to see his mum, brother, sister and two children, all of whom remain in Australia.
He is not alone.
Moses Folau, another 501, is back in New Zealand after he was deported from Melbourne in 2016 following a stint in prison for a strip club assault. He misses the friends he made while advocating for them at Melbourne Immigration Detention Centre, but has since founded a private club in Auckland where 501s often gather for support and companionship.
It is here where many 501s came together on February 5, after Payne spent the first 5 weeks of 2022 driving up and down New Zealand in a “hīkoi” or protest-journey, to inspire 501s to sign up as part of the class action.
It was a moment of celebration, the culmination of the hīkoi, which sparked hope among many 501s that 2022 may bring developments in their favour – perhaps even a chance to again hold those they’ve left behind. As of March 15, 327 class action lawsuit registrations had been received.
But while they seemed to be making progress, the reality and the urgency of the situation was not forgotten.
At the February 5 gathering, 501s convened around Payne’s laptop to send messages of support to Sosefo Tuuta, a soon-to-be deportee who video-called from Christmas Island to report on deprivation and mistreatment in the island’s immigration detention facility.
This reality keeps other 501s going, and fighting.
“I’ve put in my head that it’s not over,” Brown said. “Australia might have kicked us out but that does not defeat who we are.”