Death in custody highlights Australia’s brutal deportation of New Zealand citizens

By Tom Peters
6 October 2015

Last month 23-year-old Junior Togatuki, a New Zealand-born man of Samoan descent, died in an isolation cell in Goulburn’s Supermax prison in Australia. Authorities claim he committed suicide, although many details have not been made public.

Togatuki had recently completed a seven-year sentence for armed robbery, a crime he committed as a juvenile. Instead of being released he was kept in prison awaiting deportation to New Zealand, a country he left at the age of four and had no connection with. Like tens of thousands of New Zealand citizens, Togatuki considered himself Australian.

Fairfax Media reported on September 27 that Togatuki had written to Immigration Minister Peter Dutton pleading not to be deported. “I’ll lose all I have,” he wrote, “I’ll lose my family. I’ll lose hope in life if I go to New Zealand. I’ll break down completely.” Togatuki told Dutton he had been diagnosed with “high anxiety, post traumatic stress, hallucinations and schizophrenia after spending long periods of time in isolation.” His letter was ignored.

Togatuki’s death is the outcome of Australia’s brutal treatment of immigrants. In response to the deepening economic crisis, the Liberal government, the opposition Labor Party and the trade union bureaucracy, have sought to scapegoat and demonise foreigners. Both parties support the indefinite detention of asylum seekers, mostly from the Middle East, Sri Lanka and other parts of Asia, in prison camps, including on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and Nauru.

In December 2014, the government imposed a new policy under which non-citizens can be deported if they have been sentenced to more than one year in prison, regardless of how long they have lived in Australia.

New Zealanders have been worst affected by the policy because, under a long-standing agreement between the two countries, they are allowed to live and work in Australia indefinitely without gaining citizenship. According to one estimate there are 5,000 New Zealand citizens in Australia who meet the criteria for deportation.

Since the law change, more than 400 New Zealanders have had their visas cancelled and 151 have been deported from Australia, an increase of more than 600 percent compared with last year. At the end of September, 196 New Zealanders were in immigration detention centres on the mainland and on remote Christmas Island awaiting deportation. Many, like Togatuki, have spent almost their entire lives in Australia.

A sensationalist program on Channel Nine’s “A Current Affair” on October 1 claimed that the deportees were “cold-blooded Kiwi killers ... dangerous thugs loaded up with drugs and weapons.”

In reality many have committed minor offences. Forty-year-old Angela Russell, who has lived in Australia since she was three, has spent six months at Wickham Point Detention Centre in Darwin awaiting deportation after completing a prison sentence for shoplifting. Russell has two children who were born in Australia.

Hinemoana Ranui, a 21-year-old who moved to Australia aged nine, is also at Wickham Point. According to TV3, she had spent 27 months in prison for assault and “had been out for years” when she was suddenly imprisoned in the detention centre.

About 75 New Zealanders are detained on Christmas Island alongside asylum seekers from Iran, Sri Lanka and other countries.

New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister Bill English told TV3 on Monday that “there isn’t evidence of shocking treatment or appalling treatment” at the detention centres and that the Australian government was acting within the law.

In fact there has been a constant stream of reports of human rights abuses in Australian detention centres. Last year Australian Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs described conditions on Christmas Island as “inhumane, dangerous and extremely poor.”

Greg Barns of the Australian Lawyers Alliance told TVNZ on September 25 that those sent to the island were being “ripped away from families,” subjected to conditions that “amount to torture and cruel and unusual punishment,” and had no access to lawyers. Detainees have not been told how long they will be locked up.

On October 1, the Guardian quoted an unnamed source on Christmas Island, who said there was increasing violence at the facility following the influx of deportees. “Asylum seekers are regularly threatened with violence, rape and intimidation,” the source said. There are frequent suicide attempts in the centre.

The surge in deportations and detentions has been widely criticised by New Zealand’s media, as well as the National Party government and opposition Labour and Green Parties. Prime Minister John Key told the media he had a “pretty blunt” conversation with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and would raise concerns about the policy with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Broadcaster Duncan Garner wrote in the Dominion Post last week: “The Aussies call us family then they walk all over us.”

His colleague at TV3, Paul Henry, declared on Monday that “conditions by all accounts are appalling” on Christmas Island and the detention of New Zealanders there was “completely bloody unacceptable.”

Such professions of humanitarian concern are entirely hypocritical. Garner described Australia as “the Guantanamo of the South Pacific” but defended the detention of “boat people [who] regularly threaten Australia’s borders.”

When Henry worked at Australia’s Channel Ten he fully supported the persecution of refugees. On August 27, 2012, after several detainees went on hunger strike to protest their inhumane treatment, Henry declared: “let them starve ... There’s nothing that sends a stronger message than a few asylum seekers dying from starvation.”

Successive National and Labour Party governments have regularly deported so-called “overstayers” from New Zealand. The government has also endorsed and actively assists Australia’s illegal and indefinite detention of asylum seekers. Labour and its allies, including the right-wing New Zealand First Party and Maori nationalist Mana Party, have sought to whip up xenophobia against Chinese immigrants, blaming them for the soaring cost of housing and other social problems.

The New Zealand ruling elite’s main concern is that the public backlash to the sudden spike in deportations from Australia could undermine efforts to strengthen the military and strategic alliance between the two countries.

On September 28, Labour leader Andrew Little warned the deportations had “the potential to damage the special relationship between Australia and New Zealand; a relationship described by Australian leaders as ‘family’ and fostered by fighting side by side, even today in Iraq.” New Zealand and Australian troops have joined the Obama administration’s renewed war in Iraq and Syria. Both countries are also part of the US-led “pivot” to Asia, aimed at militarily encircling and preparing for war against China.

Prime Minister Key told the media on September 30 that “the ANZAC bond means that there’s a special relationship there. That surely means we might get some treatment that’s different from other countries.”

Both governments have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to commemorate the centenary of World War I and glorify the Anzacs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps). The “Anzac bond” is a major component of nationalist ideology in both countries. Along with its alliance with the US, New Zealand’s ruling class relies on its “special relationship” with Australia to advance its own neo-colonial interests in the South Pacific and to condition the population to support imperialist wars.

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