Kiwi mother fighting deportation after living in Australia for 37 years

Angela Russell with her daughter Breanna. Source: Supplied

A New Zealand woman facing deportation from Australia after living there for 37 years has pleaded to be reunited with her two children.

Angela Russell was looking forward to being released from prison in April after serving three months of a nine-month sentence for theft.

The 40-year-old had lived in Australia for 37 years after moving from New Zealand as a child. Her children, a boy aged four and a girl aged 17, are both Australian citizens.

But two weeks before her release date, Ms Russell received a letter from the Australian government informing her she wasn’t going to be let out because she had failed a “character test” and would be deported to New Zealand.

"It was crazy," she said. "I was in tears."

Ms Russell was moved to Wickham Point Detention Centre in Darwin a short time later and has been there ever since. She has appealed the deportation but has no idea what will happen to her.

Ms Russell is one of hundreds of New Zealanders sent to Australian immigration detention centres, including Christmas Island, since the government amended the Migration Act late last year.

Changes to section 501 of the Act meant foreign nationals who had been sentenced to at least 12 months in jail could have their visas revoked, regardless of how long they had lived in Australia.

Under the Act, a person can fail the character test set out if they have "been sentenced to 2 or more terms of imprisonment, where the total of those terms is 12 months or more."

Ms Russell said she had served short terms in prison for other offences, amounting in total to about a year.

She is now desperate to return to her children and is particularly worried about her 17-year-old daughter, who is living alone in their family home.

"My daughter is a mess," she said. "What are they going to do with my daughter if I do have to leave the country?"

Her four-year-old son is being cared for by his father's family in Queensland and the father of Ms Russell's daughter is not in the picture.

John Key's 'blunt' message to Australia

The issue of New Zealanders being deported from Australia has gained widespread attention in recent weeks following the death of New Zealand-born Junior Togatuki, who died by suicide in Goulburn's Supermax Prison.

The 23-year-old was waiting to be deported to New Zealand after finishing a prison sentence for armed robbery.

He had lived in Australia since he was four.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key raised the issue with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in New York on Tuesday, delivering what he described as a "blunt" message.

"I said there's a special relationship between New Zealand and Australia and you challenge that relationship, to a degree, when you see New Zealanders being treated in this way,” he told Radio New Zealand.

"What are they going to do with my daughter if I do have to leave the country?"

"These are often people that have spent their entire life in Australia - went over there when they were very, very young – and it’s a little bit like the Australians are saying, 'We're going to pick and choose'."

"We also deport people, but not in the way the Australians are talking about."

Ms Bishop told media in New York that Mr Key’s concerns had been heard.

"I think it would be timely for Prime Minister Turnbull to discuss this with Prime Minister Key," she said.

"There is no closer relationship than Australia and New Zealand, and so I think it's appropriate that we consider this matter."

Growing numbers

There are now about 184 New Zealanders being held in Australian immigration detention facilities, according to Department of Immigration figures, and a number of them are on Christmas Island.

Greg Barns, president of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, said about 1500 New Zealanders were currently in jail and about 5000 had been sent to prison the last 10 years.

Speaking on Sky News on Tuesday, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said changes to the Act were designed to target serious offenders.

“If an Australian went to New Zealand and was involved in child sex offences or a serious assault, armed robbery, murder, then we would expect the Australian citizen to have their visa cancelled and to be sent back to our country and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” he said.

And the amount of time someone had lived in Australia could be considered.

"We'll work with New Zealand through cases at the margins where there’s sensitivities or difficulties, particularly people who may have been in Australia for a long period of time," he said.

But he said the right to cancel visas was a well-established one.

"If they’re committing offences in our society we don't have a tolerance for that and that’s the way in which the law operates and it will continue into the future," he said.

Since changes were made late last year, almost 100 New Zealanders have reportedly been deported.

Joanne Cox, a representative of New Zealand advocacy group OzKiwi told SBS the situation was alarming.

"Our concern is around the double jeopardy aspect where the prisoners have served their time and instead of being released they are now being deported, and they’re quite often told within the last days of their sentence," she said.

"Once they're on Christmas Island they have no support system, their families can't access them, and they don't have access to their lawyers."

Ms Cox said most of them were in the dark about their fate.

"Several of the lawyers of New Zealanders are speaking out to say they are not being given information on their client and are finding it difficult to even speak to their client, so how can they even take a case or appeal a decision?" 

She said many detainees couldn't afford a lawyer and had allegedly been denied legal aid because their visas were revoked.

"If they don't have the financial recourse to hire a lawyer then they are very much on their own," Ms Cox said.

SBS understands that a number of people on Christmas island are looking at options of how to take a complaint to an external body, possibly the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Family

Ms Cox said the deportations were causing huge stress on the families affected.

"All [the detainees] know is life in Australia and they have families and children here," she said.

"People have said to me their families are going through this hell with them."

Angela Russell said the conditions inside detention were "terrible" and claimed to have witnessed mental health issues and self-harm among detainees.

"There is no closer relationship than Australia and New Zealand, and so I think it's appropriate that we consider this matter."

She said she could not understand why she was going to be removed her from her home, and her children. 

"They're Australian children and I've been in this country - this has been my country - I don't know New Zealand," she said.

"I've put myself here. I’ve done my crime I've done my time but I'm not so bad a person to keep me away from my children."

She said she contacted local police and asked them to check up on her daughter from time to time, but still worried about her living alone. 

"I'm an adult, I can deal with the pain in detention, but in the meantime every day my brain is going a hundred miles an hour thinking, is she okay?"

Correction: It was earlier reported in this article that Ms Russell’s son was being cared for by Ms Russell’s mother. This is incorrect and has been updated.

* Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 or follow @LifelineAust @OntheLineAus @kidshelp @beyondblue @headspace_aus @ReachOut_AUS on Twitter.

Source SBS Staff

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