An Australian man with no criminal convictions was held in a Christchurch jail cell without charge for 12 hours after being formally refused entry to New Zealand this month because he is a member of the Rebels motorcycle club.
This comes after a trans-Tasman diplomatic rift has arisen over moves to deport New Zealand bikies living in Australia.
John Millar arrived on 2 December at Christchurch airport, where he was handed over by immigration to local police after customs found a Rebels club vest in his luggage.
Christmas Island detention: why is Australia deporting so many people?
Millar, 34, who intended to join a motorcycle ride with the Christchurch chapter of the Rebels, was transferred to a watch house before being put on a flight back to Brisbane the next day.
NZ immigration told him on Friday that his membership of the club led to him being refused entry under section 16 of the Immigration Act.
That allows authorities to turn back anyone believed to be likely to commit an offence drawing jail time or pose a threat or risk to security, public order or the public interest.
“I’ve done nothing wrong but I’m being punished,” Millar, who has travelled to New Zealand three times in the past 20 months without incident, told Guardian Australia. “If you were going to do something wrong, why would you take club colours with you?”
It follows Australian government moves to deport residents with New Zealand citizenship on character grounds if they are members of bikie gangs.
This includes Ngati Kanohi Te Eke Haapu, also known as Ko Rutene, a one-time bodyguard of New Zealand’s prime minister, John Key, in Afghanistan. He is also a Rebels bikie and is in detention awaiting deportation despite having no criminal record.
Millar said police in Christchurch, who verified his lack of criminal history in New Zealand, speculated to him whether his was a case of New Zealand authorities retaliating for the Australian moves.
His case shows an apparent shift in policy by New Zealand immigration. Millar was granted a visa after applying for one on his first trip in March 2014 after an immigration officer advised him to do so as his membership of the Rebels might create issues. On that trip, he was sent a letter inviting him to enrol to vote.
Millar entered New Zealand again in July and October last year after being told he did not need to apply for a visa as he did not have a criminal convictions.
Comment has been sought from the office of the Australian immigration minister, Peter Dutton.
The Rebels – founded in Brisbane and Australia’s largest “1%” motorcycle club – are a declared criminal organisation in Queensland under legislation the state government has flagged it would repeal next year. However, it is not illegal to be a member or wear club paraphernalia, except in licensed premises.
No such laws exist in New Zealand, where the club has local chapters.
Millar said a customs officer had “made a fuss” about the discovery of a Rebels vest in his luggage, which he had brought along with a motorcycle helmet.
“He then had to tell his supervisor that he saw my club colours. They rang [immigration authorities in] Auckland and they said, ‘We’re denying you, you’re being detained and sent back.’
“The reason I was denied entry is apparently I’m part of a criminal organisation, that’s the words they used. I said, ‘Can you tell me anywhere where that has been shown in court?’ because I know it hasn’t. They said, ‘Yeah, it has.’ ”
He offered to produce a copy of an Australian national police check showing he had no criminal convictions.
Millar – who was told detention rooms at Christchurch were being used for “storage” as they did not have cameras required by legislation – was subsequently taken to a police station and held overnight.
“I got taken in there and they forgot about me, I guess,” he said.
“They put me in a cell and I had no toilet paper, no phone call, no shower, a blanket and a thin little mattress on a concrete floor. They gave me a little pack of cereal for breakfast. I was told at 8 o’clock someone would come from immigration. They didn’t come.
“I didn’t get any lunch. And then they arrived at 3pm and took me to the airport.”
Millar’s passport was held on the plane by a flight attendant and returned to him on arrival in Australia.
A letter from a New Zealand immigration border operations manager, Toni Sheed, to Millar on Friday indicated his status as a bikie was instrumental in his refusal.
“During a routine search by a customs officer, and subsequent telephone call with an immigration officer, it was established that: you are a member of the Rebels motorcycle gang in Australia; you were in possession of gang paraphernalia; you intended to ride with the Christchurch chapter of the Rebels motorcycle gang,” Sheed said.
“Based on this information, the border officer established that you are disqualified under section 16 of the Immigration Act 2009 and therefore must be refused entry.”
The New Zealand immigration department website states that all non-citizens who enter the country “must be of good character”. This rules out those with criminal convictions or who give false or misleading information unless they are granted a “character waiver”. Those under investigation by law enforcement anywhere must disclose this if known.
However, “unsubstantiated allegations and civil matters are not sufficient to demonstrate that a person is not of good character”, the website states.
Moves by the Australian government to use character grounds to refuse re-entry to bikies and their associates who are non-citizens when they travel overseas have been under way for several years.
The national president of the Rebels, Alex Vella, is stranded in his native Malta after being stripped of his Australian residency when he left for a holiday last year.
The high court in October refused to grant Vella an appeal of the decision.
Millar has been told he must now apply for a “special direction” waiver before he can be considered for a New Zealand visa.
Comment has been sought from the New Zealand immigration department.
EVAN HARDING AND BEN MACK
Last updated 21:13, December 18 2015
New Zealand will be in for a rude awakening unless Australian-based criminals deported back to this country start receiving meaningful support, a deportee says.
Andre Bishop, a convicted armed robber, has spoken out this month about feeling like a foreigner in his hometown of Invercargill after arriving in the city from Australia's Christmas Island Detention Centre on November 4.
Speaking on Friday, Bishop said he wanted to get the message out that Kiwi citizens with criminal backgrounds who were deported from Australia to New Zealand were not receiving sufficient support.
ROBYN EDIE/FAIRFAX NZ
Andre Bishop says he returned to Invercargill to feel safe but feels like an animal in a cage without support.
He warned this country may face consequences if that did not change.
Hardened criminals in Australia who were sent to New Zealand and were left without adequate support networks would inevitably return to a life of crime on this side of the ditch and would "run amok", he said.
"New Zealand will be in for a rude awakening ... this is why I am speaking out."
He was finding it tough being away from his immediate family members, including his young daughter, and was receiving just $200 a week from WINZ, with $150 going on rent, he said.
"That's $50 a week to live off. It can't happen."
He did say, however, that the probation service had been in contact with him and he was hoping to get counselling through them.
Police had visited him and suggested he get support from Iwi; while Bishop said police had gone to his aunty and grandfather's place in the last couple of weeks trying to locate him.
Bishop said he had received three job offers in Invercargill, at a meatworks, a dairy factory and in the forestry, but may move to Dunedin because he feels under pressure and in the spotlight in Invercargill after speaking out about his situation to the media.
Auckland entrepreneur James Crow said he would be willing to help Bishop because there was good in everyone.
Crow, co-founder of ice cream company Tommy and James, said he had products to sell in the south, with Bishop saying he would possibly be interested in a job, adding he was a good salesman.
He returned to Invercargill to start afresh, but said he felt like an animal in a cage without support.
But he said Invercargill was safe from him.
"I am a kind-hearted person, but I guess anyone who is backed into a corner will resort to whatever it takes, but Invercargill is safe."
Bishop moved to Brisbane with his family in 1997 at the age of nine and said he went on to amass a lengthy criminal record before being sent to Christmas Island. He elected to return to New Zealand instead of "sitting around in a detention centre for two years waiting for an answer" on his future.
Police said they did not discuss specific individuals but confirmed law enforcement was monitoring arriving deportees.
Labour MP Kelvin Davis has been outspoken about the need for deportees to get sufficient social support to prevent them from resorting to crime.
Corrections northern region operations director Lynette Cave said on Tuesday that corrections assisted Christmas Island deportees just like other offenders with re-integrative needs.
Corrections contracts with an agency called Pars to provide services to returning offenders, Cave said.
Bishop said he initially received a food parcel, a couch and a washing machine from the Salvation Army and had received a call from Pars several days ago and they referred him back to the Salvation Army.