On an overcast day at Brisbane airport in early February, a plain white Airbus 319 with an Australian flag marking on the tail was waiting on the tarmac.
Boarding the aircraft was Taryn O’Dowd, a New Zealand citizen who had lived in Australia for 32 years.
As deportees climbed the stairs on to the plane, a Channel Nine TV crew that had been given access by former immigration minister Peter Dutton asked questions.
“How does it feel to be kicked out of Australia?” the reporter asked one of them. Then later, “Our country doesn’t want you, are you excited to go home?”, before Dutton said: “It’s taking the trash out.”
For O’Dowd, the indignity of having a bit part in the immigration minister’s political pantomime wasn’t the worst part. It was the injustice of leaving behind her 12-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son, who she will never be able to visit in Australia, that really stung.
“I don’t understand how they can take a mother away from their children,” O’Dowd says. “My crimes weren’t insignificant, but they weren’t that monumental. This is a life sentence for me.”
O’Dowd was deported after she was jailed on a drug-related matter. Amendments to visa laws in 2014 required the cancellation of the visa of anyone who has received a prison sentence of 12 months.
Before being deported, O’Dowd thought of herself as Australian above anything else.
“I got to New Zealand and I don’t sound like a New Zealander so everyone thinks I’m an Aussie,” she says. “It’s like you don’t have a place in the world any more, everything that made you who you were is gone.
As the drama unfolded on the Brisbane tarmac, Oliver* was sitting in a Brisbane prison. The 31-year-old New Zealand citizen was facing deportation at the end of his 12-month sentence for a drug-related charge, which meant his visa was automatically cancelled.
Oliver, who has lived in Australia since the age of six, was set to join the ranks of many others who have been deported from a country they thought was their home.
His mother, Christel, says the move would cause huge damage to Oliver and his family.
“It’s been very traumatic for my son to think about being deported to a country he hasn’t grown up in and he’s never going to be able to come back to see his son,” Christel says.
‘Things will never be the same’
Another deportee, Henry*, was one of the first New Zealanders deported from Australia after the law change in 2014. Henry had earlier served a two-year prison sentence for assault, and after serving a further 18 months in Sydney’s Villawood Detention Centre, he was deported to New Zealand in 2015, leaving behind his young daughter.
Henry had lived in Australia since he was six years old, and had no connections or family in New Zealand.
His mother, Deborah, who is now caring for Henry’s daughter, says he had turned his life around after the jail sentence and before the deportation.
“He was a role model prisoner,” Deborah says. “When he got out he was going well, he was back with his family and was so happy. They had a great life, they had a lot of potential. But then that law change smashed him to pieces.”
The deportation has devastated the lives of Deborah and her family, she says.
“Things will never be the same,” Deborah says. “We don’t really enjoy life any more. I’m not the same.”
“It’s just unbelievable that this government could do this to families, to their own neighbours. We’re not the only family ripped apart and suffering because of this.”
Difficult to fight
For those fighting deportation, it can be a long journey.
In Oliver’s case, his family successfully challenged his visa cancellation at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
He had been jailed on a drug charge that stemmed from an addiction his family says was caused by childhood trauma. He initially served four months of this sentence before being released, and then managed to turn his life around.
“He has a three-year-old son and the thought of never seeing him turned his world upside down,” Christel says. “He did everything to turn his life around.”
But midway through last year, the police decided to pursue Oliver’s case again. He decided to serve the remainder of the 12-month sentence, and return to a Brisbane prison in August last year.
That week, the government again cancelled his Australian visa.
“It’s absolutely devastating,” Christel says. “We had no idea that just by him going back to prison he would immediately have his visa cancelled again. We were so upset, we couldn’t believe it.”
This is despite Oliver’s charge being his first offence, and a non-violent, relatively minor drug-related one.
But the family had some good news this week. Thanks to a costly immigration lawyer, they have again successfully challenged the cancellation of Oliver’s visa and he can remain in Australia with his family. Christel says she is “over the moon”, but is aware that not everyone can afford to mount the same legal defence.
Policy ‘tearing families apart’
Barrister and Australian Lawyers Alliance justice spokesperson Greg Barns has represented several New Zealanders facing deportation.
“These are very, very difficult cases,” Barns says. “It’s not only the individual, but it’s also the family and their loved ones, particularly children. I’ve seen families torn apart as a result of the policy of the Australian government.
“When it comes to deportation, the Australian government has no sense of humanity whatsoever. These are harrowing cases. Often people stay in immigration detention for a number of years while the case is being decided.”
New Zealanders stripped of their Australian visa do not have access to legal aid to fight this decision, and fees for immigration lawyers can typically reach hundreds of thousands of dollars, locking out most of the people facing deportation.
O’Dowd is hoping to educate the general public in Australia on what’s happening with these deportations.
“I feel like people don’t understand that we have done our time – they think we get sentenced and then get deported, they say ‘do the crime, serve the time’. But I did serve the time,” she says.
“Considering most of us have lived in Australia for so long, our crimes are more indicative of Australian culture than anything else. Getting rid of us hasn’t stopped the drug problem in Australia, it has just left broken families.”
* Names have been changed for legal reasons