‘501’ Australian deportee: ‘I just thought they are not going to tear a mother away from her children’

When Taryn O’Dowd boarded a flight to New Zealand it was a one-way trip.

Her fellow passengers included a man who tried to buy a 14-year-old girl for sex, a man who spent 20 years on the run after choking his girlfriend to death and another man who killed his girlfriend’s parents before burying them next to the swimming pool.

Cold-blooded murderers, child abusers, “scum of the earth”, “trash”, “worst of the worst” – those on board the unmarked Airbus jet were all convicted criminals who have been given many names, but are most commonly known here as 501 deportees.

“It’s taking the trash out and making Australia a safer place,” Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton told journalists as the ‘Con Air’ flight departed last month.

“We’re talking about the most serious offenders here and our country is safer for having deported them,” he said.

But, although 41-year-old O’Dowd admits she hasn’t been perfect, she objects to being referred to as trash and believes her drug conviction is far from making her the worst of the worst.

The mother-of-two has spent more than 30 years living in Australia, gaining a bachelor’s degree, paying taxes, holding down good jobs – even working for the prison system at one stage.

For the vast majority of that time she had a clean record, with not even a speeding ticket to her name.

But three years ago her life fell apart. She broke into a vacant holiday home while fleeing a violent partner and was jailed for three months. Within a year she was convicted after being caught with 10g of methamphetamine.

“I wasn’t until later in life that I made some poor choices,” she told the Herald on Sunday in an exclusive interview.

“When my life imploded, it imploded completely.”

The two convictions were enough for her to be thrown out of the country for life. She became a 501 – a punishment she says is far greater than the crimes she committed.

“The reason they deport us is because they say we are too much of a risk to society.

“I believe I’m intrinsically a good person. I have hurt myself and my family but I don’t think I was ever a risk to the community.”

O’Dowd decided to out herself as a “501” after deportee Tangaru-Noere Turia was shot dead by police last month after firing a shot through a neighbour’s window then later “brandishing” a gun as he emerged from his home.

She said there was always more to the 501 story than people realised. They don’t understand the stigma of being deported and the difficulty of trying to settle in and start a new life without any friends or support.

O’Dowd is similar to Turia in that the people she knows here are mainly other deportees. She arrived three weeks ago with a few belongings her mother managed to pack into a suitcase but most of her stuff remains in a country she can never enter.

“Just about everything I owned is still in Australia.”

This week she moved into a two-bedroom unit that she shares with another deportee and is about to start looking for a job.

She is determined to make a life for herself here – but her eyes water as she thinks of what she will miss.

“The worst part about it is my children.”

Family birthdays and Christmases, her 12-year-old daughter’s dance recitals, her 8-year-old son’s football games. Their first dates, driving lessons and eventually their own families.

“When they have children, I’m not going to be there.”

She hopes once Covid is under control her children and mother will eventually be able to come to visit.

There’s a good chance she will never see her father again after learning last week that he has lung cancer.

“It really hit home the ginormous impact when I heard that my dad had cancer and I might not get to say goodbye to him.”

It’s a big punishment for having 10g of methamphetamine.

“People tell you ‘you did the crime, you do the time’ … but I have been punished for what I did.”

“I have served my time and gone to jail for one and a half years. I was punished further by being sent here.

“Anybody else in the same circumstance, who did what I did and went to jail, they get to go out and live their life and go back to their families.”

O’Dowd was born in Masterton but moved to Australia when she was 9 after a family visit to see an uncle. Her parents fell in love with the country and she only ever returned twice briefly to see another relative with whom she hasn’t had any further contact in years.

“None of my family have reached out to me, the only people (I know) are the 501s. The 501s are like my family.”

She says she had no idea when she went to prison for the drug offending that her visa would automatically be cancelled under Australia’s Migration Act, which allows for the deportation of a foreigner who “is or may be a risk to the health, safety or good order of the Australian community” or is “not of good character”.

When she discovered her visa had been cancelled she went through the process of appealing it – naively believing her crimes were not enough to rip a family apart.

“I just thought, ‘they are not going to tear a mother away from her children.”

But the appeal was denied and, on February 17, O’Dowd became one of more than 2000 people who have been deported to New Zealand since the controversial policy was introduced late in 2014.

The numbers have been increasing – nearly 500 arriving in the 2019-2020 financial year alone.

O’Dowd says she was handcuffed throughout the trip and fingerprinted as soon as the flight landed in Auckland and will be visited by a probation officer for the first six months of being here – all despite having served her time.

“There’s no clean slate here. Before we even leave the airport, our fingerprints, DNA and photo are taken, which only reinforces the fact that New Zealand authorities are nearly expecting us to be recidivists.”

There is, however, some basis for that precautionary approach. Research out early last year found 40 per cent of the Australian deportees had offended since they arrived.

One of the most recent is Turia, who was shot by police after refusing to put down his gun. He was on bail and awaiting sentencing after being involved in a violent bank robbery last year and recently fleeing from a court-appointed address.

The father-of-three had lived in Australia since he was 6 but was deported four years ago following a domestic incident.

His mother said he had mental health issues and struggled to integrate in a country where the only people he knew were also criminals.

“My son was one of many kids sent back,” said Moana Taverio. “But he just didn’t fit into the environment. He had no idea of what to do or how to do it.

“The only connections he had was [with] the ones who get sent back because he knew them prior.”

While O’Dowd doesn’t defend Turia’s actions, and acknowledges some deportees will never reform, she feels many are being set up to fail.

At least three have killed themselves since arriving here.

Despite deportees having undergone rehabilitation and treatment programmes in prison and being deemed safe enough to be released on parole, O’Dowd said they are sent to another country and expected to assimilate into a society where they have no belongings, jobs or often family to support them; to a country where people have already preconceived ideas about the kind of people being sent back.

“We’re like the rejects of society not wanted by anyone, even though most of us have a lot to offer if given half the chance. Most of us come here in the hope this can be a fresh start.

“However, from the moment we arrive, we are reminded quite blatantly that our errant ways will not be put aside here, even though we have all served our time for our offences in Australia.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has made her views on Australia’s deportation policy clear – not shying away from telling her counterpart, Scott Morrison, early last year that it was having a “corrosive impact” on the relationship between the two countries.

Although she said Australia was well within its rights to deport individuals who broke its laws – New Zealand does the same – she asked Morrison to be fair in who was sent back.

“We have a simple request. Send back Kiwis, genuine Kiwis. Do not deport your people and your problems.”

Morrison has stood his ground, saying there are no plans to change things.

O’Dowd says it’s difficult adjusting to life in a country you know little about. The deportees she arrived with were all taken to the Ramada for managed isolation. She was then given six nights’ accommodation in Flat Bush before being left to adjust to life here on her own.

With the support of Prisoners’ Aid and Rehabilitation Society (Pars) she’s found a place to live. She’s had to try to set up bank accounts, an IRD number and is now starting to look for a job.

People have told her not to let on she is a 501 – a title that conjures up images of dangerous criminals, often gang members, who often go on to re-offend as soon as they are deported.

But, O’Dowd says, she won’t shy away from her past, nor will she hide the truth when applying for jobs. Everyone makes mistakes, she says, and she hopes New Zealanders will accept the fact she has served her time.

“I don’t want to lie, I don’t deserve to feel ashamed of what I have done. I have served my time.”

Although she can understand why some people, like gang members who travel between the countries frequently, should be deported, she doesn’t believe people who have spent the majority of their lives in Australia should be.

O’Dowd says she isn’t sharing her story in the hope of gaining sympathy or changing Morrison’s mind – she knows she is never returning to Australia.

She also knows she has made mistakes and has to live with the consequences but simply asks people to give her a chance, rather than assume the worst because she is a 501.

“Don’t be so quick to judge.”

“I came out of prison a better person than when I went in. I really did find myself in prison.”

“I deserve a second chance.”

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