What it's like to be a New Zealander deported after decades of living in Australia

As the Australian government debates a new character test that would make it easier to kick out immigrants who commit a crime, long-term residents sent back to New Zealand tell SBS News the impact existing laws had on them.

In a small, one-bedroom flat in the New Zealand city of Christchurch, Adrian Solomon-Maery is unpacking three duffle bags.

It's all he has left, he says, of his 39 years in Australia.

In the 1980s, Adrian moved from New Zealand to Western Australia as a 23-year-old for a job in the wool industry. He went on to play semi-professional rugby in Perth, and would later buy a house and start a family.

Australia was home.

That is until, earlier this month, when he was deported.

Adrian Soloman-Maery spent 18 months on Christmas Island.
Source: SBS

The father-of-two is now trying to navigate life in a country he hasn't lived in for four decades.

"My daughters, my family - they are still in Australia - all those things. My mates, my life itself," he tells SBS News.

In 2016, Adrian was charged with breaching an intervention order and was sentenced to six months in prison.

"It was a time and stage of my life where I wasn’t happy with where I was and how I was travelling at the time," the 58-year-old says.

"But, at the end of the day, I still did something wrong and I told myself that."

Adrian Solomon-Maery says his 39 years in Australia have been reduced to three duffle bags.
Source: SBS

He was also charged with drink driving in the early 2000s but did not serve any jail time.

Prison, he says, was hard, but he thought it would help him come out of the other side a changed man.

"The thing is, going into that kind of incarceration, you’ve got a release date and you can look at which way you are going to head when it’s all [over]."

"You can set yourself up, which I thought I was going to do, until three days before my release date."

Held in detention 

At the beginning of 2017, just before he was due to be discharged from prison, Adrian was sent to immigration detention on Christmas Island.

"There was no indication that that was going to happen to me. It's like freedom [is] coming and you really start to feel good, then all of a sudden, 'bang'," he says.

"You've just got no inclination of how or why they are doing this."

Source: AAP

Adrian remained on Christmas Island for 18 months while he fought his case, and was later moved to two immigration detention centres in Melbourne before he was eventually deported. 

His emotions are still raw. 

"It didn't make you feel good," he says, his eyes filling with tears and his voice cracking. 

He buries his head in his palms.

"Christmas Island ..." he continues.

"The worst of the worst ... You're made to feel like that." 

Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean, is home to an Australian immigration detention facility previously used to hold asylum seekers who had arrived by boat.

It was closed in 2018 before the Morrison government announced plans to re-open the centre in February this year.  

A Tamil family who have been living in Biloela, Queensland, are currently being held on the island while they wait for their visa case to be resolved.

'I was in the wrong'

Jason Wereta also spent eight months on Christmas Island in 2014 after being convicted of driving without a licence on two occasions.

"Being taken away from my family for driving without a licence doesn’t warrant me to be a hardened criminal," he says.

The New Zealander had called Australia home for more than 20 years. 

Jason Wereta spent eight months on Christmas Island.
Source: SBS

"Deep down, I was in the wrong, I own that and I apologise to the Australian people for that. But to be taken away from my family, it’s something I have to live with." 

The father-of-four, who also has a previous conviction of common assault, was eventually released from detention. But when he was caught driving without a licence a third time, he agreed to return to New Zealand, this time choosing not to fight the immigration laws.

"I didn’t want to hang around immigration for another 14 months. I fought for the first time for my kids and I said 'Dad’s going to go back', and signed to go back to New Zealand," he says. 

Jason Wereta's daughters are still in Australia.
Source: SBS

For the past two years, he's been living in the city of Dunedin, on the South Island.

"It’s bloody hard," he says. 

"When you get older you realise how much family really does mean to you. Where I am now, just got a roof over my head. It is cold without your family.

"But I'll still keep fighting." 

New Zealanders disproportionately affected

In 2014, the Australian government tightened the visa character test, paving the way for almost 5,000 deportations of non-citizens with criminal records.

Under the laws, long-term residents who have served 12 months or more in prison, or are believed to pose a threat to the country, can be deported.

More than 400 New Zealanders had their visas cancelled in 2018.
Source: Department of Home Affairs


New Zealanders are allowed to live in Australia indefinitely on a temporary Special Category visa, which is automatically issued when entering Australia. 

But as the largest group of non-citizens New Zealanders are disproportionately affected by the laws.  

More than 1,000 New Zealanders were deported between 2017-18, and in those years, they represented the largest nationality in Australia's immigration detention centres. 

The deportation laws have put a strain one of the world’s closest bilateral relationships, with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern repeatedly raising the issue, which she says is "corrosive" to the alliance. 

New Zealanders overwhelming represented the number of deportations in 2017.
Source: Department of Home Affairs

The Australian government is now seeking to further tighten the character test laws so that any non-citizen who commits a crime that carries a sentence of at least two years could face deportation - even if they don't actually serve jail time for it.

Immigration Minister David Coleman says the proposed changes are designed to protect Australians. 

"This law provides a clear, objective power for the department to cancel that person's visa. It will lead to an increase in cancellations, and I note that some of the critics of this bill say that like it's a bad thing. That is the design," he told journalists last week.  

David Coleman says the proposed changes to the bill are designed to protect Australians.
Source: AAP

New Zealand High Commissioner to Australia Annette King believes the changes will only exacerbate the situation for those impacted. 

"We feel that they will make an already bad situation worse for New Zealanders who have lived long-term in Australia," she said. 

"Often they have no contacts, no family. They are there on there own without their family, their children, their parents are back in Australia." 

"And, of course, we have found there has been a relatively high rate of re-offending when they are deprived of their loved ones and their friends." 

'It shattered my life'

In some cases, those deported haven't lived in New Zealand since they were children.

They include 42-year-old Justin Millar, who moved to Australia as a 10-year-old. 

"[It] shattered my life. I lost my whole life, everything," he says. 

Deportee Justin Millar moved to Australia as a 10-year-old.
Source: SBS

Justin has been charged with a string of crimes in Australia - including theft, willful damage, grievous bodily harm and breaching an AVO - but describes his deportation as a "life sentence" on top of the time he had already served.

He was sent back to New Zealand five days ahead of his scheduled release from prison

"It's more or less like I've got a life sentence, you know? I just found out my dad's got lung cancer too - I won't get a chance to see him again."

High commissioner Ms King says Australia should be responsible for the rehabilitation of its long-term residents.

"New Zealanders who have lived here, perhaps came as very young children, commit crimes in their 30s, 40s - we’ve got example of people who have lived here for more than 30 years - and we believe that then becomes the responsibility of the Australian government, just as if you’ve lived for 10 years in New Zealand, we take responsibility for you as ours," she said.

Police support

The proposed changes to the character test have been widely criticised by Australian migration experts, who say it will lead to tens of thousands of deportations. But they have the support of the Police Federation of Australia (PFA).

"When someone is here on the goodwill of Australia and refuses to actually abide by our laws and or participate in Australia and commit violent and serious offences, then that right should be reviewed," PFA CEO Scott Weber said.

"We see a revolving door in regards to courts and time and time again. We lock up people for a serious incident or bail breaches, or revocation of paroles, and they are back out on the streets committing another offence.

"If there is another line of defence to protect the community, such as a strong character testing, we're all for it."

Filipa Payne has visited New Zealanders in all of Australia's detention centres.
Source: Facebook

Christchurch-based Filipa Payne is the co-founder of Route 501 - an advocacy group for deportees.

She says the many of those deported or in detention have not committed serious crimes.

"Shoplifting, we have young mothers in detention that have been shoplifting. Juveniles in detention for graffiti, we have people that have been charged with an assault charge when in fact all they’ve done is take a baseball cap from a premises."

"The terminology is used to make people sound horrifically abusive. The majority have had some hard luck or had some trouble in their life, not everybody can deal with the situations in the best of their ability at the time - we should be offering support.

Ms Payne has visited New Zealanders in all of Australia's detention centres, including those on Christmas Island.

"It’s broken them, it’s completely destroyed them, so many people have come back here and have post-traumatic stress. They are unable to work, they are unable to re-integrate," she said.

"A prison is designed for rehabilitation and reintegration into society. A detention centre is to do the exact opposite - to take away any rehabilitation and to make that person feel worse about themselves, to feel like they’re not worthy of being on this earth, to feel like they're not worthy of their family."

The proposed changes to the character test also seek to apply the laws retrospectively, and Ms Payne says that makes even more New Zealanders living in Australia vulnerable.

"They could have served time in jail 20 years ago, gone ahead and lived a very productive and rehabilitative life, and now the Australian immigration system is not taking on board those 20 years - how is that fair? How is that just?"

Labor opposes the bill, but says it could support it if changes are made, including special consideration for New Zealanders. Those requests have been rejected by the government.

The bill has passed through the House of Representatives and is expected to be debated in the Senate next month.

Published 25 September 2019 at 8:05pm, updated 25 September 2019 at 8:21pm
By Abbie O'Brien