Australia, refugees and the rights of NZ-born workers‏

November 13, 2015

Protesters occupy Australian Consulate, Auckland, November 11.

I was glad to be part of the November 11 protests, organised by the trade union Unite and by Global Peace and Justice Auckland, at the Australian Consulate in Auckland over their government's policies that have led to the indefinite detention of asylum seekers and Australian residents born in New Zealand in what are in effect concentration camps.

Australia joins a select few countries that claim to be democracies with indefinite detention without trial for a special category of people. This includes the US with its prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and Israel in relation to Palestinians in the occupied territories.

As of June 30, there were 655 asylum seekers (including 88 children) in the “regional processing centre” on Nauru, and 945 adult male asylum seekers in the centre on Manus Island in PNG.

This policy has been condemned around the world as being in violation of UN refugee conventions. Conditions are so bad that major prison revolts have occurred in Nauru in July 2013 resulting in $60 million in damage, and another in Manus in 2014.

More than 90% of the cases of those held in these processing centres have valid refugee claims.

The average time spent in detention has increased to 417 days with 25% over 730 days.

The Australian Human Rights Commission reported concern for the welfare of detainees.

Seeking asylum in Australia is not illegal. In fact, it is a basic human right. All people are entitled to protection of their human rights, including the right to seek asylum, regardless of how or where they arrive in Australia.

Former residents of New Zealand, who have lived in Australia since they were infants and have families there, are now being caught up in this detention regime established for so-called “maritime arrivals” because they too lack legal residence status.

Most governments have powers to cancel residence visas for non-citizens for serious offences. Australia, however, has made this policy mandatory for a very wide range of what are relatively minor criminal offences.

Under the Migration Amendment (Character and General Visa Cancellation) Act 2014, it is now mandatory to send people back to their countries of birth, after being sentenced to terms that total 12 months or more. But the 12 months can be cumulative over your life. The character test can also be applied if you associate with criminals — for example, by belonging to a bikie gang — and can mean loss of residency rights.

You can fail the character test if “your past and present criminal or general conduct shows that you are not of good character”. You will also fail the character test if you commit any offence, no matter how minor, while in immigration custody.

If you lose your visa then you must be detained awaiting deportation under mandatory detention rules brought in the mid-1990s. A September 11 article in Vice reported the impact: “In 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Committee condemned Australia's practice of deporting non-citizens as a violation of international law.

“This was in relation to the 2006 deportation of Stefan Nystrom, who'd arrived in the country three weeks after being born and was deported to Sweden at the age of 33. Nystrom had a checkered past, having served numerous terms in Australian prisons. When his visa was cancelled, a non-citizen's accumulated sentences had to add up to two or more years to warrant deportation.

“Since the December amendments to the Migration Act, mandatory cancellations of visas have skyrocketed. Figures provided by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) show that in the year 2014-15 there were 580 cancellations, compared with 76 in 2013-14, an increase of 660%. In July of this year, there were 116 mandatory cancellations, compared with 90 in the month prior.

“While these changes don't specifically target New Zealanders, they do seem to be having a disproportionate effect on them. At the end of July this year, 166 New Zealanders were in immigration detention centres, compared with a total of 52 deported for the whole of 2014. DIBP reports show that at the end of March, New Zealanders made up 4.5% of people in immigration detention and this figure rose to 8.2% by July. Whereas prior to this, Kiwis did not make up a significant percentage and were classified under the category of 'Other'.”

Five thousand NZ-born residents have served prison sentences in Australia. Fifteen hundred are currently in prison. About 200 are currently detained awaiting deportation.

There are 650,000 people born in New Zealand now living in Australia. This is a consequence of an almost permanent net drain of Kiwis to Australia of about 20,000 a year on average for the past three decades.

Almost since both nations' foundation there has been free travel and the right to work in each other's country. This included equal access to welfare, health and education.

However, since 2001, NZ residents moving to Australia can access only a very limited range of entitlements and have found it almost impossible to transition from having a work permit to permanent residence or citizenship. The number granted permanent residence from June 2006 to May 2012 totalled 11,800 — less than 10% of the number of those who arrived from New Zealand.

The reason it is difficult is that despite the fact the New Zealanders may have been living and working in Australia for decades on work permits, they cannot achieve the points required for permanent residence used for those applying from outside Australia which is weighted towards education and wealth. Australia claims this does not discriminate as the same rule is applied for a builders labourer from New Zealand as is applied to a business person.

This affects about 250,000 NZ-born Australian residents. They can access Medicare and pre-tertiary education. But they cannot get unemployment benefits, subsidies for tertiary education, transport subsidies, disability insurance, housing assistance or domestic violence help. This list goes on and on. They also cannot vote. Children born to non-residents are also non-residents until their 10th birthday and can prove they have been ordinarily resident for those 10 years.

Because these 250,000 people have no residency rights in the first place there are almost no ways to appeal.

The 2001 law change followed a period of racist and anti-immigrant propaganda around New Zealanders accessing welfare in Australia and living the high life. However, tax paid by Kiwis vastly exceeded any benefits claimed. Moreover, New Zealand-born residents have a significantly higher rate of workforce participation (78%) than Australian-born residents (68%). There was also a racist fear that New Zealand was becoming a back door entry for Pacific Islanders and Hong Kong Chinese to Australia.

It certainly seems that Maori and Pacifica residents in Australia are overwhelmingly those being targeted for deportation under the new character test.

Because many Maori and Pacifica families are unable to afford to pay the fees to send their children to college or university, the cycles of deprivation and poverty that result become generational.

A campaign has started in Australia to end this second class status applied to Kiwis and win equal rights for all.

FairGo4All and Oz Kiwi have been formed by Kiwis in Australia to fight for their rights. Forty thousand people signed a petition presented in June.

This has inspired unions and the broader labour movement to step up. The National Union of Workers has been taking the lead. It is obvious to any worker on the job that policies that discriminate against their co-workers in this way are not right. Even the recent Australian Labor Party conference adopted a policy for equal rights for Kiwis despite having a rotten policy on refugee rights.

This struggle will only intensify in coming years. The lessons of both the refugee rights struggle and that of the second-class citizenship imposed on Kiwi-born residents in Australia is that allowing any sector of humanity to be turned into some sort of “other” who is less than we are is a dangerous path to undermining all our rights.

The words of Pastor Martin Niemöller, who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps, are more relevant now than ever.

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

[Mike Treen is national director of the New Zealand trade union, Unite.]

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