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This isn’t an ordinary trans-Tasman service. Fourteen of the men and women on board are being forced out of Australia, required to return to a country most of them haven’t called home in decades.

Most of the deportees on a series of ‘Con Air’ flights to New Zealand arrive with no job, family or a place to live. But they do have gang connections and violent criminal backgrounds.

Blair Ensor and Andrea Vance trace the impact of the hundreds of criminal deportees from their walk in shackles through Australian airports into the small towns and cities of New Zealand.

andrea

andrea vance

Senior journalist

blair

blair ensor

Senior journalist

iain

Iain mcgregor

Visual journalist

chapter two chapter

The passengers shuffle across the tarmac. The sun is rising on a warm spring day, and some of the men raise their faces to feel its heat.

It will be the last time most of them touch Australian soil.

Before they climb the metal steps to the plane, they are searched for contraband or weapons.

Handcuffed, 12 men and two women board the Skytraders charter plane.

It's bound for Auckland, New Zealand and they all have a one way ticket. When the plane door closes, they leave behind children, husbands, wives and parents.

One is an associate of the Comanchero, an Australian bikie gang. Another is a child sex offender. A third has previously been deported from the United States.

Between them, those on board have been convicted of dozens of crimes, including attempted murder, aggravated robbery, possessing firearms and drugs, domestic violence, assaulting police, shoplifting, driving offences, stalking and fraud.

On the three-hour flight, the deportees are guarded by 14 prison officers.

Restrained in body belts, their wrists are cuffed together. Most have been escorted from immigration detention centres on Christmas Island, Western Australia and Villawood, Sydney.

The plane touched down at Auckland Airport mid-morning on September 18 last year.

As they stepped on to the tarmac, still shackled, the temperature was ten degrees cooler than the weather they left behind in Sydney.

Most had spent little time here, leaving for Australia as youngsters. September 18, 2018 marked the beginning of their new life as New Zealanders.

deportee1
THE DEPORTED
Pick a passenger to see their details
deportee1 deportee1
deportee2 deportee2
deportee3 deportee3
deportee4 deportee4
deportee5 deportee5
deportee6 deportee6
deportee7 deportee7
deportee8 deportee8
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deportee-avatar

Passenger No.1

Aggravated robbery, assault on police

two years supervision
deportee-avatar

Passenger No.2

GBH, possession of prohibited firearm

two years supervision
deportee-avatar

Passenger No.3

Attempted murder, possession of pistol, stalking

one year supervision
deportee-avatar

Passenger No.4

Assault with intention to rob, burglary

one year supervision
deportee-avatar

Passenger No.5

Aggravated robbery, GBH

one year supervision

Alvin Tualaremembers the "walk of shame" as he was led in shackles through Melbourne Airport to a similar 'Con Air' flight.

“I'm sure every airport has a back door [but] they walk you through the food area, the waiting area.

“When you are chained from your ankles to your elbows, of course people are going to look at you. They are trying to cover your chains with towels but people can hear them.”

Tuala, 42, who moved to Australia with his family as a 17-year-old, was charged with attempted murder after he shot at a group of Hells Angels gang members.

Despite being convicted of a lesser charge of excessive self-defence - his first offence - he was evicted from the country he called home on a charter flight with four other deportees.

Tuala, a father of four, touched down in Wellington on February 8.

He says he was taken into custody on the plane and spent the next 48 hours in a holding cell.

“This was their exact words: We are just rolling out the red carpet for you, mate.

“We just want you to know that we don't want Australian criminals of your calibre coming back here and messing up our great country.”

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deportee-avatar

Passenger No.6

Assault, contravening protection order

six months supervision
deportee-avatar

Passenger No.7

Assault

six months supervision
deportee-avatar

Passenger No.8

Assault occasioning actual bodily harm

six months supervision
deportee-avatar

Passenger No.9

Assault, burglary, shoplifting

No supervision period
deportee-avatar

Passenger No.10

Theft, fraud, assault on police

No supervision period

Without family, a job or anywhere to live, many of those deported since the Australian migration law changes in 2014 struggle.

“We have seen guys really anxious, or really angry, or really depressed,” says Rachael Ngatai of the Prisoner's Aid and Rehabilitation Society (PARS), which supports deportees upon arrival in New Zealand.

PARS reintegration services manager Rachael Ngatai (Photo: Lawrence Smith)

PARS reintegration services manager Rachael Ngatai (Photo: Lawrence Smith)

“They just can’t fathom [it]. They don’t have any family here, some left when they were two, and now they are here.

“Some will take every opportunity they can get but some are struggling. It is case-by-case how each person deals with it.”

Isolated and alienated, many quickly return to committing the sorts of crimes that got them kicked out of Australia.

Police statistics provided to Stuff show about one third of the 1865 people deported between January 2015 and August 2019 have been convicted of at least one offence since their arrival.

Gang membership is up 26 per cent in five years. And the gang landscape, once dominated by the Mongrel Mob and Black Power, is now more complex, unpredictable and dangerous.

The Rebels and Bandidos were already here, but with senior figures exiled across the Tasman, other Aussie bikie gangs, like the Comanchero and Mongols, have expanded their power base.

“They are seeing an opportunity to move into what is a reasonably lucrative market in New Zealand, because of the prices we are prepared to pay [for drugs], particularly methamphetamine,”
Detective Superintendent Greg Williams, of the National Organised Crime Group, says.

At the end of August, the national gang register carried the names of 71 deportees.

Williams says the deported bikies are often the most powerful or influential figures - presidents, vice presidents, treasurers and senior patched members - and outsource crimes, like drug peddling, to foot soldiers.

They bring professionalism, criminal “tradecraft”, encrypted technologies and significant international connections, he says.

Detective Superintendent Greg Williams is in charge of the National Organised Crime Group

Detective Superintendent Greg Williams is in charge of the National Organised Crime Group

“That really changed the scene for us here.”

As well as China and South East Asia, methamphetamine is now coming across the Pacific, most likely routed from the ruthless Jalisco New Generation (CJNG) and Sinaloa cartels in Mexico.

Williams calls it “illegal globalisation”.

“It is about breaking down borders, being able to make trade deals and sell products across the world.

“We are seeing a lot of meetings taking place in South East Asia, [and] up into Mexico, where you have this connection between those people producing, and those people supplying.”

As well as much slicker operations, the Aussie motorcycle groups have sophisticated recruitment techniques.

“They changed the whole way in which the gangs might present themselves, to potential recruits or to the public [through] social media messaging and marketing,” Williams says.

“You saw a change from dirty jackets, unclean looking, riding round in old Fords, to now suddenly people with all the bling, with muscles fairly fit, at the gym, expensive watches, expensive vehicles, Harley Motorcycles.

The Comanchero use posts like this on Instagram as part of their recruitment strategy.

The Comanchero use posts like this on Instagram as part of their recruitment strategy.

“[They] start to attract younger people who are saying this doesn't look like a bad lifestyle.”

Sociologist Jarrod Gilbert, author of Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand, has noted a culture change.

“New Zealand gangs have traditionally had a fairly well defined culture. [They've] tended to be more of the drop out type thing, rather than … ostentatious shows of wealth.

The Comanchero in Australia are known for their propensity for violence and their use of guns to settle disputes.

The Comanchero in Australia are known for their propensity for violence and their use of guns to settle disputes.

“This idea of the Nike Bikie, the designer clothes, the bling, the jewellery … has meant that the [Australian gangs] operate in slightly different ways than New Zealand gangs and we can see that that influence is accelerating the changes that we were starting to see in the New Zealand scene anyway.”

Gilbert is talking about the expansion of historically established New Zealand gangs.

“We are seeing more of a presence of gangs in small town New Zealand than we have seen previously - a remarkable phenomena, really.”

Williams agrees.

“You are seeing what were traditional gangs morphing now into potentially trans-national type gangs as well . . . we have seen that expansion really across from Taupō north, now we are seeing it down into the South Island as well.”

Sociologist Jarrod Gilbert

Sociologist Jarrod Gilbert

Kiwi gangs looking to protect their market have expanded out of the cities and into rural areas, he explains. That brings inevitable turf wars.

“Violence is sadly the way of life of these people.”

While many '501' gang members are based in the North Island - in Auckland and the Bay of Plenty - the flow-on effect of their arrival is being felt as far afield as Bluff.

Stuff understands gang members from various groups, particularly the Mongrel Mob, have been running methamphetamine into Southland, where there has recently been a noticeable increase in the availability of the drug, and a drop in price.

Clutha District mayor Bryan Cadogan says the lower South Island is in the grips of a meth epidemic fuelled by an “explosion” in gang activity in the area in the past two to three years.

He says police have told him the 501s are a “component” in the issues faces faced by southern areas, like his.

“I think it's abhorrent what Australia is doing to New Zealand.”

Gore District mayor Tracy Hicks is also concerned about the increase in gang members and the prevalence of methamphetamine in the south.

“It's such a different culture to what we're used to ... it's come upon us quite quickly.

“It's a concern for mayors up and down the country. Everyone is really struggling to respond.”

Gun violence is a particular worry for police.

“It is actually quite chilling how many organised crime figures and gang members have firearms. We have been told that gangs are, in essence, arming up to protect themselves as these other groups come in,”
Williams says.

Gilbert says clashes are to be expected.

“For a very long time, as one gang member put it to me, the country was in checkmate. New Zealand had been divided up and everybody knew everybody else's area and so the politics were quite easy.

“Now that's become incredibly messy ... and so when you move into another area you either need to seek permission or you do it with force - there are only those two ways and frankly permissions aren't often given.”

New Zealand gangs have always prized loyalty, but, Williams says, there’s been a “dynamic shift” with members of groups like the Head Hunters and Mongrel Mob joining the Comanchero.

Contract killings are also a new feature of the gang underworld. Williams cites the street execution of Epalahame Tu’uheava.

Epalahame Tu’uheava

Epalahame Tu’uheava

The patched Nomads member was shot seven times and died within minutes after being lured to a drug deal in South Auckland in April 2018.

A court heard a senior member of the Comanchero a gang known in Australia for its use of guns to settle disputes, sanctioned the killing.

“We believe we have seen people being hired for contract killings in New Zealand that is coming out of this stuff,” Williams says. He’s aware of “three or four ongoing investigations where this was an element”.

Since 2015, the New Zealand Government has been trying to limit the damage created by the ongoing stream of 501 deportees.

Before they arrive, the police and Corrections must work out where each deportee falls in a supervision regime.

If they have served a sentence of at least a year, and been released within six months of their arrival in New Zealand, or if they were already being monitored in Australia, then Corrections officials will ask the District Court for further supervision, called a Returning Offender Order (ROO).

An interim order is put in place, and then finalised within 30 days of their arrival. The deportees must agree not to move from an approved address without the written permission of a probation officer, and to participate in rehabilitation programmes.

If a returning offender has been convicted of child sex offences, Corrections can also seek a special condition preventing contact with a child aged under 16.

Returning prisoners can’t be recalled to jail. But they can be stung with a $2000 fine for breaching any conditions set by the court.

According to Corrections, an average of 282 returnees subject to a ROO have been in the country at any point in time over the last two years. Deportees subject to such an order are convicted at a lower rate than those who aren’t.

deportee1
THE DEPORTED
Pick a passenger to see their details
deportee1 deportee1
deportee2 deportee2
deportee3 deportee3
deportee4
deportee5 deportee5
deportee6 deportee6
deportee7
deportee8 deportee8

It’s difficult to put a true cost on the mass deportations. Although the Ministry of Social Development provides employment, housing and income support, it couldn’t say how many were supported or the associated cost.

In 2016, Corrections estimated that over six years to 2021, the cost of supervising and managing the deportees would be $37.6m. That included just over $15.9m for supervision and reintegration, and $21.7m for reconviction and reimprisonment.

Richard Taylor, the Ministry of Health’s addiction group manager, says the Counties Manukau District Health Board is paid $50,000 a year to assess deportees.

“Most deportees are young fit men with minor health related issues, however there is mention in numerous reports about delays in health information from Australia, and increases in deportees with alcohol and other drugs [or] mental health issues.”

The returning prisoners - those who are to be supervised - are entitled to 12 weeks accommodation. Probation officers give them a lift or organise transport from the airport and follow up with a visit the next day.

They also get clothing, food, a basic cellphone and public transport cards.

Returnees who will not be supervised are free to leave through the airport's public exit. Work and Income and Inland Revenue staff are there to offer advice and help with paperwork.

Work and Income and Inland Revenue (IRD) staff are there to offer advice and help with paperwork.

A briefing paper prepared for Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis in 2017 lays out the challenges ahead of the ‘Con Air’ passengers.

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis

“Returnees face considerable challenges due to their limited ties to New Zealand and have reported common difficulties, including: securing affordable accommodation, obtaining a drivers' licence, complex health needs, and feelings of isolation due to their lack of connections in their communities.

“The reintegration support offered to returnees focuses on these common needs.”

seatplan
deportee-avatar

Passenger No.11

GBH, possession of prohibited firearm

No supervision period
deportee-avatar

Passenger No.12

Extensive supplying drugs, assault, burglary

No supervision period
deportee-avatar

Passenger No.13

Assault, robbery, stalking (historic)

No supervision period
deportee-avatar

Passenger No.14

Had lied on passenger arrival card, been deported from the US

No supervision period

In 2016, Corrections estimated that over six years to 2021, the cost of supervising and managing the deportees would be $37.6m. That included just over $15.9m for supervision and reintegration, and $21.7m for reconviction and reimprisonment.

Richard Taylor, the Ministry of Health’s addiction group manager, says the DHB is paid $50,000 a year to assess deportees.

“Most deportees are young fit men with minor health related issues, however there is mention in numerous reports about delays in health information from Australia, and increases in deportees with alcohol and other drugs [or] mental health issues.”

The returning prisoners - those who are to be supervised - are entitled to 12 weeks accommodation, and probation officers give them a lift or organise transport. They follow up with a visit the next day.

They also get clothing, food, a basic cellphone and public transport cards.

Returnees who are not to be supervised are free to leave through the public exit.

Work and Income and Inland Revenue (IRD) staff are there to offer advice and help with paperwork.

A briefing paper prepared for Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis in 2017 lays out the challenges ahead of the ‘Con Air’ passengers.

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis

“Returnees face considerable challenges due to their limited ties to New Zealand and have reported common difficulties, including: securing affordable accommodation, obtaining a drivers' licence, complex health needs, and feelings of isolation due to their lack of connections in their communities.

“The reintegration support offered to returnees focuses on these common needs.”

Tuala says he received little help, and has struggled since he was deported back to Wellington in February. He spent almost nine years in prison and at Melbourne's Broadmeadows immigration detention centre, called “immigration transit accommodation” by authorities.

After spending 48 hours in custody when he first landed in New Zealand, Tuala says he was handed $120 and sent to a backpackers’ hostel where three nights in a dorm was paid upfront.

After that, he was on his own. He had no phone, no bank account and no family in the city and ended up sleeping in train carriages at the city’s railway station.

“I couldn't get a job and when I went to social welfare they just shunned me. They didn’t know what to do with me.

“I was sent to get papers from IRD, came back and they messed me around for another three days. I wasn't going to ask my wife for money because my family need it.

“I was homeless for eight nights.”

A friend paid his bus fare from Wellington to Auckland. His wife and four children, aged 14, 12, 10, and nine years old, moved from Melbourne shortly after.

“They are the ones who paid the full price. I understand that I made the mistake and I went to prison, but my family went to prison and detention with me.

“I am still fighting my case now, but I had to leave [because] ... my children were getting old without me.

“I needed to have time with my children when they were young, rather than just sit there in a detention centre and allow my wife and kids to struggle while I am sitting there twiddling my thumbs.”

Tuala, who owned his own logistics company in Australia, says he’s struggled to find work, applying for over 100 jobs.

“I'm highly qualified, I can do the job. But I never get the job. No-one wants to hire a 501 returned criminal … A lot of the boys are like me, first timers, we are not hardened life criminals. [But] as soon as you say ‘501’ you are a dead fish in the water.”

He’s now in the final stages of creating an app to link sympathetic employers with returnees searching for work and help them get their qualifications recognised in New Zealand.

“I have been able to, within the 501 community, network with people that have returned since 2014.

“I've got companies that are owned by 501s and they know from experience that yeah, we are criminals on paper, but we are people.

“We are not going to deal with anyone that's done violence against women and children. We will just cater directly to the boys that are coming back, who are qualified in certain positions.

“A lot of the boys that come here from detention have got their tickets, are qualified in roadworks, construction and carpentry and New Zealand needs a lot of them. They don't want to come here and solely be dependent on the benefit.”

Tuala says many deportees struggle with discrimination.

“We are not paedophiles and rapists. The majority of us just made a mistake.

“You have got boys returning that left when they were two years old - they are coming back with Aussie accents, with Aussie ways, Aussie mentality.

“Of the 10 boys that I knew [from detention] that came back, only three are left.

“The rest have all gone back to prison. Four of them basically told me: I need to get back inside, I've got nothing on the outside. At least inside I have got three hot meals and a cot.

“There is no support, they've nothing.”

words

Andrea Vance and Blair Ensor

visuals

Iain McGregor

design and layout

Sungmi Kim

editor

John Hartevelt