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2022

‘We’re not all bad people’: The 501 deportees on the road to redemption

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CHRIS SKELTON

Former Rebels gang member and 501 deportee, Lee Te Puia is now mentoring through his boxing gym.

This story is featured on Stuff’s The Long Read podcast. Check it out by hitting the play button below, or find it on podcast apps like Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

Nearly 3000 people have been deported to New Zealand since Australia began hardline enforcement of a populist immigration policy in late 2014. More than half of them have gone on to commit crimes, but some are on the road to redemption. Blair Ensor reports.

Lee Te Puia stood with his hands in the air as black-clad police officers ran towards him with guns drawn.

“Get on the f…… ground,” an officer yelled.

Te Puia was forced onto his stomach and handcuffed, as his primary school-aged children, looking on from their Perth home, screamed.

“Leave my dad alone. He’s not doing anything wrong,” one of them said.

The previous day – September 6, 2017 – Te Puia, a high-ranking Rebels gang member, had walked free from Perth Immigration Detention Centre after Australia’s highest court ruled a decision to cancel his visa using secret information was invalid.

READ MORE:
* Kiwi dad faces deportation after years of criminal offending
* Australian Minister Peter Dutton ‘trashes his own reputation’ by insulting NZ deportees, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta says
* New Zealand Rebels gang boss Aaron ‘AJ’ Graham kicked out of Australia

But within minutes of stepping outside the wire he learned Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton had used new legislation passed under urgency days earlier to again revoke his right to live in Australia.

Lee Te Puia was deported from Australia in 2017 because of his apparent links to organised crime.

CHRIS SKELTON/Stuff

Lee Te Puia was deported from Australia in 2017 because of his apparent links to organised crime.

After hiding out at a friend’s place for a few hours, Te Puia returned home and waited for the inevitable.

His two-year fight to stay in Australia was over.

Te Puia is amongst nearly 3000 people deported to New Zealand since late 2014 when Australia began hardline enforcement of a populist immigration policy.

The deportees are known as 501s, named after the section of the Australian Migration Act that has allowed the cancellation of many of their visas.

Most have criminal records, but others, like Te Puia, are deemed to be of bad character because of their association with bikie gangs and apparent ties to organised crime.

The forced deportation policy has been “corrosive” to the trans-Tasman relationship, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.

Many of those who are kicked out of Australia have lived there for years and on return to New Zealand find themselves isolated from family and friends. And without a job, or stable accommodation, they often turn to crime. Some, of course, have made that a lifestyle, whether in Australia or New Zealand.

The 501s have made New Zealand’s gang landscape more complex, unpredictable and dangerous. Their names feature regularly on court lists across the country.

New figures obtained by Stuff show more than half of the 2651 people deported between January 2015 and April 2022 have committed at least one crime since their arrival.

And with hundreds of others sitting in Australian detention centres waiting to be sent home (there were 254 at the end of May) advocates say more needs to be done to support 501s when they land in New Zealand.

Better access to housing and mental health and addictions services are key, they say, but Kiwis also need to be more accommodating, particularly when it comes to helping them secure work.

The deportees have been painted as the worst of the worst – murderers, rapists and child sex offenders. Dutton said Australia was “taking out the trash”. But many of them have only relatively minor convictions for drug crimes and dishonesty offending.

Police Minister Chris Hipkins says people who’ve done their time deserve another opportunity.

Abigail Dougherty/Stuff

Police Minister Chris Hipkins says people who’ve done their time deserve another opportunity.

“I think some of the inflammatory rhetoric in Australia around the 501s has been… really horrible and completely lacking in humanity,” says Police Minister Chris Hipkins. “Sometimes people fall off the right path … and there are consequences for that, but they do deserve an opportunity to have a fresh start.”

There are success stories among the deportees, but they don’t come easy.

‘I was about to take my own life’

Banished from Australia, despite having no criminal record there, Lee Te Puia wound up back where it all began – Blenheim. He’d had a troubled upbringing in the small town. The son of a gang associate, and sexually abused by a family friend as a child, he left for Australia in search of a better life in 2005.

Now, 12 years later, Te Puia was back with no money, no stable accommodation and no job. His mother was dying of cancer, some of his seven children were struggling with depression, and he was isolated from the “brotherhood” of the Rebels, the bikie gang he’d dedicated so much of his recent life to. During his two years in detention, he’d witnessed brutality and was haunted by an incident where a man asked him to help him kill himself.

Te Puia’s own mental health was in decline. Even finding a job, somewhere to live and quitting the gang, didn’t help.

Lee Te Puia was a high-ranking member of a Rebels bikie gang chapter in Perth, Australia.

SUPPLIED

Lee Te Puia was a high-ranking member of a Rebels bikie gang chapter in Perth, Australia.

“I’d pushed myself into a corner and that corner was getting darker and darker,” he says.

At his lowest point, Te Puia contemplated suicide.

“I was about to take my own life and I thought of my kids and my grandkids. They needed me around to get out of their dark times too.”

For salvation, Te Puia turned to boxing, a sport he’d developed a passion for in Australia.

He hung up a punching bag in his garage, and slugged it out morning and night in an effort to clear his head.

“I took some shit out on my bag … and I just thought to myself, it does well for me.”

A carpet layer by trade, Te Puia decided to teach boxing. Through a friend he learned of several youths in town who were also down on their luck. They were among his first students.

“I was trying to mentor them and tell them my journey and my struggles in life … and it just grew from there.”

Lee Te Puia contemplated suicide after he was deported to New Zealand.

CHRIS SKELTON/Stuff

Lee Te Puia contemplated suicide after he was deported to New Zealand.

Two years on, largely through word of mouth, Te Puia’s school of boxing has far outgrown his garage. He’s got his trainer’s licence, his own gym called Box on Boxing, and more than 150 students of all ages. The gym is run via a not-for-profit charitable organisation called Box On Charitable Trust. Te Puia also shares his story in schools, is working with Sport Tasman and drops in regularly to the local youth centre to spend time there with anyone who might need his help.

“I get real emotional [when I look at where I am] right now, because it’s taken me a lot of hard work to get here. I’m still on my path to redemption. I’ve got positive people around me and they keep me grounded.”

The 44-year-old is grateful for the support he’s received from family and friends since being deported. They were the ones who helped him find a house and a job when others rejected him because he was a gang member and a 501, he says.

“I’m one of the lucky ones. There are many people … coming home who have got nothing.”

Te Puia is reluctant to talk about his time with the Rebels, which he left in late 2019.

“That’s in my past,” he says.

“The patch meant a lot to me. When I was in the club I’d give 100% to everything … but I couldn’t do that any more because I had to sort my mental health out, and I really needed to be there for my family. I felt like they accepted it. For me, brotherhood is about being straight up with your brothers. It was hard.”

Lee Te Puia has established a boxing gym in Blenheim and is helping steer youth away from gangs.

CHRIS SKELTON/Stuff

Lee Te Puia has established a boxing gym in Blenheim and is helping steer youth away from gangs.

These days Te Puia is focused on steering youths away from gangs.

“In life we all have that hard road and … we punch on or box on and carry on our journey in life. I’ve had a colourful life. This is my new journey, and it’s going good.”

‘We’re not all bad people’

More than 300km south, Mark Talanoa, 33, is hard at work on a building site at one of Christchurch’s prestigious secondary schools.

As a youth, Talanoa caused trouble on the streets of east Auckland – drinking, smoking cannabis, stealing cars and beating people up.

He and his older brother, Fetuli, were also talented sportsmen. They were both awarded scholarships to attend Wesley College, which has produced rugby greats like Jonah Lomu. And, in 2004, their mother sent them to live with their aunty in Sydney where she hoped they’d steer clear of a life of crime and instead make it big in the National Rugby League (NRL) competition.

Mark Talanoa was deported to New Zealand after he shot at a gang president’s house in Sydney.

CHRIS SKELTON/Stuff

Mark Talanoa was deported to New Zealand after he shot at a gang president’s house in Sydney.

Fetuli secured a professional contract at 18 and carved out a career playing for some of the top teams in the world (the South Sydney Rabbitohs in Australia and Hull FC in the UK).

Talanoa buckled under the pressure to keep pace with his brother, and turned once again to drugs and alcohol. He was plagued by injuries and eventually threw the game away, choosing instead to promote parties at nightclubs. He also started dealing methamphetamine, cocaine and ecstasy, and fell out with a gang that wanted to tax his profits.

During a meth-fuelled rampage, Talanoa set fire to the gang’s headquarters, fired shots at the president’s house and tried to blow up his car. The crimes earned him a lengthy stint behind bars.

In 2015, two years before he was released from prison, Talanoa learned he would be deported, and his partner, now wife, packed up her life and headed across the Tasman to prepare for his arrival.

“She sent me a map of New Zealand and asked, ‘Where do you want me to go?’. I put a big X next to Auckland – there were too many temptations, too many boys in that space and it would have been too easy to fall into old habits. I didn’t want to do jail again – I didn’t want to put my family through that. Most of my mates who have been deported have gone back to jail two, three, four times – and it continues. I knew I had to make amends.”

Mark Talanoa pictured during his time in prison in Australia.

SUPPLIED

Mark Talanoa pictured during his time in prison in Australia.

Talanoa chose Christchurch and tried to approach life like he had a clean slate. But that was easier said than done. Every time he applied for a job, a background check revealed his history and he was knocked back.

“It was so hard to find work. It made me second-guess whether I should go back down the old path and start selling drugs. The system almost sets you up to fail.”

Talanoa resisted the urge to return to crime and eventually, through a recruitment agency, secured temporary work as a labourer on South Base Construction sites. After a year of sweeping floors, picking up rubbish and lugging timber, his reliability and hard work was rewarded with a full-time job.

“There’s nothing fun about picking up rubbish, but I knew that if I persevered someone would sign me up,” he says.

South Base labour manager Scott Kelly says employers need to sit down and meet people face to face rather than writing them off based on their history.

“People make mistakes. I took a chance on him. I knew there was a decent person in there. I knew I could get a lot out of him.”

Mark Talaboa is now a fourth-year apprentice carpenter at South Base in Christchurch.

CHRIS SKELTON/Stuff

Mark Talaboa is now a fourth-year apprentice carpenter at South Base in Christchurch.

Talanoa, a father of two pre-school-aged children, and a teenaged step-son, is now a fourth-year apprentice carpenter at South Base. Recently, with the company’s help, he established a charitable trust called Road II Redemption, which aims to help offenders and deportees reintegrate into the community, with housing, financial support and mentoring programmes. He is also regularly invited to share his story at events to inspire and give hope to others.

“We’re not all bad,” Talanoa says of deportees. “There’re a lot of people [returning home] and reoffending and doing violent crimes, but there are also guys and girls like me trying to put our best foot forward.”

501s need to treat being kicked out of Australia as a new chapter in their life, he says. “You’ve done the hardest part of your life being in jail and being deported. Surround yourself with people that have your best interests at heart, who will keep you accountable.”

’Stop sending 501s to the bottom of our social pit’

Supporting deportees when they arrive back in New Zealand is a multi-agency affair that has cost the country tens of millions of dollars.

Those who have served a sentence of at least a year, and been released within six months of their arrival , or if they were already being monitored in Australia, are usually subject to a Returning Offender Order (ROO), which means they have to adhere to parole-like supervision.

Corrections contracts organisations, such as Prisoners Aid and Rehabilitation Society (PARS), to help find deportees housing, jobs and healthcare.

There are hundreds of Kiwis being held in Australian detention centres waiting to be deported.

Iain McGregor/Stuff

There are hundreds of Kiwis being held in Australian detention centres waiting to be deported.

Those who aren’t subject to an ROO are also able to access reintegration support.

Filipa Payne, the founder of the Iwi in Aus and Route 501 groups, has long advocated for deportees, and says Tepuia and Talanoa are “shining lights” amongst the thousands of 501s.

It’s no surprise so many of those who’ve been exiled from Australia have committed crimes since crossing the Tasman, she says.

The deportees are spending longer in more brutal conditions in detention centres and when they land in New Zealand, they’re treated like criminals, and receive inadequate support.

“We subject them to conditions that are often detrimental to their mental health and their social wellbeing. We need to extend our hands and offer support instead of sending them to the bottom of our social pit into emergency housing and then blaming the downfall on the person.”

Payne says New Zealand officials need to engage with deportees long before they’re kicked out of Australia to find out what their individual needs are, rather than applying a one-size-fits-all model when they arrive.

“I believe the majority of people who are deported … come here wanting and willing to change their lives – they just don’t know how, in an environment they don’t fit.”

Filipa Payne, an advocate for 501s, says deportees receive inadequate support.

Supplied

Filipa Payne, an advocate for 501s, says deportees receive inadequate support.

Hipkins says ensuring deportees have the support they need to reintegrate into society is “absolutely a priority” for the Government.

“We’re always looking for what we can do better. If additional resource is required, if it can be demonstrated that there’s an evidence base to support that, then … we’re always interested in that conversation.”

He acknowledges housing is an issue for deportees, as it is for many people across the country, and it “is a big focus area for us”.

Police figures show reoffending rates amongst deportees in their first year are comparable to those who’ve been released from prison.

“I think we all need to recognise that if people have done their time, they deserve an opportunity to turn their life around. If we continue to stigmatise people based on mistakes they’ve made in the past then we actually increase the likelihood they’ll make mistakes again in the future,” Hipkins says.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has said the recently elected Labor Government will take a “common sense” approach to deportations, indicating visa cancellation decisions will better reflect the length of time a person has lived in Australia.

Hipkins says Albanese’s comments are “very encouraging”, but it’s too soon to say whether they will result in any “significant change” that stems the flow of Kiwis being kicked out of Australia.

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