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Government tightens visa character test

Refugees could be sent back to countries where they face persecution under proposed new laws

Tens of thousands of migrants could have their visas cancelled under proposed laws to tighten the character test.

The changes introduced to Parliament last month are expected to have a disproportionate effect on New Zealanders living in Australia, deepening a growing rift between the two countries over deportations.

Dual New Zealand-Australian citizen Erina Morunga, Adelaide-based migration agent, says she's been inundated with requests for help from Kiwis concerned they are going to be sent back for crimes they committed years ago even if they didn't go to jail.

Deportations have been a source of tension between New Zealand and Australia since the character test was strengthened in 2014 resulting in many long-term Australian residents being sent back if they'd been sentenced to 12 months jail for a crime.

But the Australian government is showing no signs of backing down.

Instead, Immigration Minister David Coleman is proposing to further tighten the rules to make it easier to deport tens of thousands more migrants on character grounds.

Under the planned changes, visa-holders who have committed a crime that carries a maximum sentence of at least two years, such as common assault, will automatically fail the character test, even if they are not sentenced to jail.

Migration researcher and former Labor policy advisor, Henry Sherrell says the latest proposal would put migrants, who are unlikely to be a threat to the community, at risk of deportation.

Adding to concerns about the proposed changes is that they'll apply retrospectively, meaning anyone who has committed a crime covered by the laws in the past could be deported on character grounds.

As the largest group of visa-holders in Australia with limited rights to permanent residency, New Zealanders are expected to be disproportionately affected.

Almost half the 886 visa holders sent back to their countries of birth last year were from New Zealand.

Mr Coleman told parliament last month the bill would send a clear message to all non-citizens that the Australian community has no tolerance for foreign nationals who have been convicted of such crimes.

He said entry and stay in Australia was a privilege, not a right, and anyone who breaks the law should expect to lose that privilege.

While not deliberately targeting New Zealanders, La Trobe University law professor Patrick Keyzer says the proposed legislation will have ramifications for the relationship between the Trans-Tasman neighbours.

Professor Keyzer, who has researched the impact of the 2014 changes, says the implementation of the policy is having a devastating impact on many families.

"It’s often depriving these families of bread winners and certainly depriving these families of fathers and often times these men have lived in Australia for many, many years, some arriving as children of tender age," Professor Keyzer said.

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