‘Racist’ raids: New Zealand to say sorry to Pacific Islanders

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to apologise over early morning immigration raids in 1970s that singled out people of Pacific Island descent.

The apology follows a petition to parliament by Benji Timu who is of Samoan, Cook Island and Niuean descent [Sasha Borissenko/AL Jazeera]

Wellington, New Zealand – It has been 50 years since New Zealand’s “dawn raids” and the 82-year-old father of Pacific Peoples Minister Aupito William Sio still cannot talk about it.

“How do you talk about something where you were made to feel helpless in your own home by an authority that was supposed to look after you and an authority you came to serve?” Sio said.

The dawn raids took place in the 1970s, involving people from the Pacific Islands who had migrated to New Zealand to work in the years following World War II.

One winter morning in 1974, the police – accompanied by dogs – came to the front door of Sio’s father’s property in Otara, Auckland. They demanded everyone in the house retrieve their passport to show they were legally entitled to be in New Zealand. Dogs were barking, people were screaming and the police chased Sio’s cousins from the garage. They were taken to jail minus their belongings and deported to Samoa.

Many Pacific Islanders moved to New Zealand after the war to boost the country’s depleted labour force. By 1976, they made up just over 2 percent of the country’s population, numbering 65,700 according to the national census. But they came under pressure amid the economic strife that roiled the country in the 1970s when the Labour Government decided to crack down on immigration. Between 1974 and 1976, there were numerous raids on the homes of Pacific families, often in the early morning or late at night. Thousands were arrested and deported.

After years of community-led lobbying – including a petition signed by 7,366 people that was presented in parliament in June – Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the government would formally apologise for a policy that she acknowledged has caused “deep wounds” among New Zealand’s Pacific communities.

The apology is scheduled for August 1, 2021.

Sio says it is important New Zealand acknowledges selected racial profiling as part of its history.

The father of Pacific Peoples Minister Aupito William Sio was among people of Pacific origin who were singled out in immigration raids in the 1970s [Courtesy of William Sio’s office]

“It’s the first move in removing the shackles of shame,” he said. “If we don’t learn and understand what happened and come up with excuses the same pattern of behaviour will manifest again. We need to accept that what happened was wrong and it is still wrong.”

A 1986 investigation by the Race Relations Conciliator into allegations of discrimination in the application of immigration laws found that between 1985-1986, while Pacific peoples made up a third of people who had remained after their visas had expired, they accounted for 86 percent of all prosecutions. In comparison, those from the United States and Great Britain, who also made up a third of all of those who had overstayed, accounted for only 5 percent of all prosecutions. According to the Ministry for Pacific Peoples, there were an estimated 5,000-12,000 who had done so between 1974 and 1976.

Why now?

Benji Timu and Josiah Tualamali’i began the petition that was tabled in parliament in June after feeling frustrated that no official had recognised the inter-generational trauma resulting from the raids, a topic which was not brought up in school, Timu told Al Jazeera.

Timu, 27, has spent the last five years learning about his identity.

Of Samoan, Cook Island, and Niuean descent, he says he is only now learning about his culture’s struggles.

“A lot of people talk about the shame and guilt they’ve had to carry in order to stay in New Zealand. I see myself as part of the privileged diaspora of the Pacific. I can speak my language and English and I feel there’s a responsibility to stand up for my culture,” he said.

“It’s crazy to think we didn’t learn about this in schools. I’ve received no anti-racism education. The damage may be done and you can see the hurt has passed down two generations. It’s manifested in distrust in the police and the government. And there are a whole lot of things keeping our people at the bottom – whether that’s socioeconomically, educationally, or from a justice standpoint. An apology is the first start of the process for making things right.”

Pacific Islanders make up 8.1 percent of New Zealand’s five million people. National statistics dating back to 2013 suggest their median annual income was 8,800 New Zealand dollars ($6,145) lower than the median national income and over the three years from 2012 to 2014, about 28 percent of Pacific children lived in poor households, compared with 16 percent of children of European origin.

The petition also called for the implementation of a legacy fund to honour, acknowledge and financially support those families affected by the raids.

Cindy Kiro, (left), and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, (right), walk together through Parliament Building on Monday, May 24, 2021, in Wellington, New Zealand. Kiro was named as New Zealand’s next governor-general, the first Indigenous Maori woman appointed to the role. [File: Nick Perry/AP Photo]

While it is “deeply significant for the state to apologise for the wrongs that were perpetuated by the raids and the state-sanctioned racist rhetoric, which was designed to denigrate and dehumanise Pacific Islanders” – an apology is not enough, Auckland University law lecturer Dylan Asafo told Al Jazeera.

Asafo is referring to an election campaign advertisement that was shown on television by the National Party that included Pacific Islanders being depicted as animalistic, violent, job-stealers who were bringing crime and civil unrest to New Zealand.

The overtly racist campaign helped party leader and former Prime Minister Robert Muldoon win the 1975 general election.

“It was quite traumatic to see blatant racism accepted so widely,” Asafo said. “But it was effective seeing as Muldoon won by a landslide. The state-sanctioned racism taught a generation that it was OK to see Pacific Islanders in that light and we haven’t seen any policy to counteract these acts since.”

Need for change

Now, racism covertly underpins New Zealand’s immigration laws, he says.

“There are no clear pathways for permanent residency for Pacific people and people of colour. The system is designed for white migrants from wealthy developed countries, who are seen by the government to offer more to the economy. Whereas people of colour are seen as a drain on the economy and are relegated to temporary visas that expire, and then they’re denied rights and entitlements.”

The Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme came into effect in 2007 and was designed to allow the agriculture sector to recruit people from overseas for seasonal work. In practice, it means Pacific Islanders are invited to apply for the programme, given poor wages, and despite providing a valuable role to New Zealand, denied the right to live in the country permanently and forced to return to their home countries, Asafo says.

“Pacific Islanders are forced to work in precarious conditions; they’re seen as tools for their labour and easily disposed of. The system is undermining the dignity of those people,” he said.

“I feel there is a racist contradiction where we are seen as part of the Pacific and acknowledged as New Zealand’s neighbours in an international setting. But in an immigration context, Pacific people are second-class citizens that are exploited for their labour to fuel the labour shortage.

More than 7,000 people signed the petition that was presented in parliament in June [Sasha Borissenko/Al Jazeera]

“The Government has expressed concern but whether it’s remorse or regret depends on whether appropriate actions are taken to address the systematic dehumanisation of a group of people and the impact which still exists today.”

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi says Ardern has stated there should not be expectations around an amnesty, noting that an opportunity for pardon was provided in 2000 and 2001.

Ardern also noted there are many ethnic groups and communities that would like a pathway to residence. The government would not wish to accompany an apology for discriminatory actions with a policy that itself discriminates by restricting eligibility to certain groups, Faafoi says.

“The government remains committed to the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme but we have identified areas for improvement.”

A review of the scheme is currently under way by the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment, which includes mechanisms for setting caps and worker allocations that are fair, transparent, and drive better performance; ensuring workers get a fair share of benefits from their participation and effective management of potential consequences such as the displacement of New Zealand workers.

The review includes the consideration of ways to strengthen compliance and minimise the risk of exploitation. It will also review employers’ obligations in terms of looking after their workers, including the provision of suitable accommodation, Faafoi says.

Minister Sio says: “We continue to review the scheme and we are collecting intelligence from the local community. I’m aware of the criticisms. There are two sides [that being the exploitation of foreign workers] but talk to any employer and you’ll hear a different story. We also need to be mindful and give opportunities to our local workforce.”

For now, it is important to acknowledge the harm and trauma the dawn raids caused to a very important part of the New Zealand community, Sio says. “People came here to be good citizens and were unjustly treated by the people who were supposed to protect them.

“I want people to feel confident to tell their story as it becomes a healing process for those traumatised. It’s also important for the rest of New Zealand, to make it known what happened – especially what politicians, police, and immigration officials were talking about behind closed doors – so that it doesn’t happen again.”

Source: Al Jazeera