501 deportee who died in Australian custody was Christchurch mother of two

By Will Trafford

Additional reporting, Rebekah Holt in Sydney (Poihakena), Australia (Ahitereiria)

A wahine who killed herself in an Australian immigration detention centre had her access to mental health medication restricted, and in the hours before ending her life, her cell was raided by guards who removed a stray cat she had adopted during her stay at the centre.

The New Zealand woman who took her life while serving time in an Australian Immigration detention centre, pled with fellow detainees to tell her story, just hours before she died.

TeAoMāori.news understands the woman was a 53-year-old from Ōtautahi, Christchurch, and the mother of two boys.

The woman had been held for six months at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney as part of Australia’s controversial 501 deportation programme, during that time, fellow deportees say her mental state rapidly deteriorated.

“The treatment she received was not human," a source within the facility familiar with its operations and the woman’s situation, told Whakaata Māori.

The source says Serco, the private operator of the centre is failing as it relates to tackling mental illness among detainees.

“With mental health concerns, basically it’s the same approach for everyone. Heavily sedate them so they shut up.”

'Beautiful wairua'

Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition, an advocacy group for detainees told Whakaata Māori on Monday fellow inmates and the woman herself had pleaded with Serco to get her help.

“Both she and a few other detainees had told Serco and Border Force, she needed help and should not be in detention. Her mental distress was very obvious,” Rintoul said.

Friends today remembered the woman as "gorgeous, with a beautiful wairua".

“I was concerned about her, about her mental health, especially in that place,” one said.

On Sunday, the day after the woman’s death, detainees told The Guardian, the woman had been battling to get earlier access to her mental health medication in recent days.

“She told me that she needs to have some medication at 8am in the morning but they’d give her medication like at 11am or 11.30am. And that makes her feel so bad,” one detainee said.

The woman killed herself just after 10am on Saturday.

'Broke her spirit'

“She was telling us last night, ‘I want my story to be heard. I want the people to know what happened to me. I want to tell the people what these detention centres do to people,” a detainee recalled.

One of the ‘final straws’ was likely that the woman had adopted one of the stray cats known for roaming the facility, to keep her company, but guards raided her cell just hours before she ended her life, and took the animal.

“She was pretty obsessive, attached, and they knew that. They broke her spirit," a detainee said.

The fellow deportees also say the woman had been trying for some time to get in touch with her two boys, one who lives in Sydney but she believed guards were preventing her from doing so.

TeAoMāori.news understands the Australian Border Force took more than 12 hours to get in touch with the woman’s family after her death.

Rintoul says the Christchurch woman’s death follows a suicide of an Iranian asylum seeker in March, along with a series of suicide attempts from other detainees at the centre.

Last month Māori Television broadcast footage of detainees at a facility on Christmas Island, northwest of Australia, gushing blood from a series of wounds they say were inflicted by guards, who beat them with batons and steel pipes while protesting conditions at the detention facility.

As of 7pm this evening Aotearoa’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade said it has still not been notified of a death of a New Zealand woman in an Australian detention centre.

Recailbration possible

The Christchurch woman’s death comes just days after a change of government in Australia signalled there might be a recalibration of the country’s deportation policy.

Australia’s new Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has signalled the controversial 501 programme will continue but he’s also hinted there might be more consideration for the length of time someone has livedin Australia, and if they have any ties to Aotearoa.

The 501 deportations disproportionately affect Māori and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern welcomed potential reforms to it during her weekly post-cabinet press conference Monday.

"We accept because we do it too, circumstances under which people will be deported … We have always reserved the right for New Zealand to do that.” Ardern said.

"The area we have had grievance is where individuals are being deported who have little or no connection to New Zealand. “

"I will be utterly consistent no matter whom the leader is in Australia with raising that grievance,"  Ardern said.

Māori Television has contacted Australia’s Department of Home Affairs. It is yet to confirm the death of a New Zealander in its custody; it has also not responded to Māori Television’s request for comment.