New Zealand’s health minister has voiced displeasure at Australia’s plan to resume deportations in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
A secure isolation hotel is being prepared in Auckland to quarantine 30 New Zealand deportees from Australia; the first arrivals since Covid-19 gripped both sides of the Tasman.
Health minister Chris Hipkins said: “We’re receiving them because we’re obliged to receive them but it would be wrong to say we’re happy about it. However, Australia is within its legal right to do what they’re doing.”
Hipkins said the utmost would be done to ensure they were effectively quarantined, and safely released into the community.
Filipa Payne, a detainees’ advocate and co-founder of the Iwi N Aus advocacy group, said that eight of the 30 people were being held in a detention centre in Melbourne, the centre of Australia’s most recent coronavirus outbreak.
The other men were being held in Sydney’s Villawood detention centre and the Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation centre.
The men were “relieved” to be leaving detention. “Sadly they can’t wait to leave Australia, a place they used to call home,” Payne said.
Before the pandemic, about five deportees a week arrived in New Zealand from Australia.
The 30 arrivals would arrive in New Zealand by charter flight this week, and be directly transferred to an inner-city hotel for two weeks of mandatory isolation.
Extra security would be on hand to monitor the deportees – an unusual step as deportees were routinely released directly into the community. Hipkins said the arrivals were at “higher risk of potential offending”, and “extra precautions” were needed to manage them.
The name and location of the quarantine hotel is being kept secret after some deportees encountered bullying and harassment online, Hipkins said. It was possible they could be targeted by vigilantes, the minister said.
“Whilst we are opposed to the deportation policy of the Australian government, we are working closely with them to ensure it is well managed,” Hipkins said. “The Australian government have given us an assurance they won’t deport further people to New Zealand without first working with us to make sure all of the logistical arrangements are well planned and we have the capacity to accept them.”
Last week, the New Zealand government asked Air New Zealand to “pause” the number of people able to book international flights back to New Zealand, to give it time to manage the swelling numbers in managed isolation.
The arriving deportees would add further pressure to the system, which saw police officers called in to manage the rising number of people absconding.
Nearly 28,000 people have now passed through New Zealand’s quarantine hotels, the vast majority of them returning citizens.
National Party leader Todd Muller said the deportees’ arrival was making New Zealanders nervous, because the government had failed to prove it could safely manage the quarantine facilities, with numerous escapes.
More than 1,000 New Zealanders have been deported by the Australian government under changes made in 2014 to section 501 of the Migration Act. Even if they have lived and worked in Australia for decades and gained permanent residency, under the new rules New Zealanders can be ejected on “bad character grounds”, for being sentenced to 12 months or more in jail, or at the discretion of the home affairs minister, all in the name of national security.
Rebecca Powell from Monash University’s Border Crossing Observatory said New Zealanders now make up the majority of people held in Australian immigration detention centres and are the largest nationality group to have their visas cancelled under the new amendments. New Zealanders of Māori and Pacific Island descent are over-represented.
About a dozen New Zealand men held at Western Australia’s Yongah Hill have held a daily protest for the past five days seeking to be deported. These men are not in the initial group of 30, Payne said.
Guardian Australia has contacted Australia’s Department of Home Affairs and the Australian Border Force for comment.