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jacinda ardern sitting in a woven mat chair with two ministers holding a fine mat, about to cover her with it. An RNZ headline about dawn raid tactics in 2023 is overlayed on the image
Jacinda Ardern under a fine mat at the dawn raids apology (Image: Fiona Gooddall/Getty)

OPINIONPoliticsMay 3, 2023

A dawn raids apology and a wake-up call (literally)

jacinda ardern sitting in a woven mat chair with two ministers holding a fine mat, about to cover her with it. An RNZ headline about dawn raid tactics in 2023 is overlayed on the image
Jacinda Ardern under a fine mat at the dawn raids apology (Image: Fiona Gooddall/Getty)

The ongoing practice of early morning arrests for overstaying makes the government’s apology in 2021 ring hollow, writes Madeleine Chapman.

If Sāmoans had a love language it would be acts of service. Service to fanau, service to the church, service to the community. Yes you will be mocked to hell and back but if you ever needed a couch to sleep on, a ride to the airport or a lifeline, you know who’ll be there in a heartbeat. Which is why it was so hard for many Pacific people to fully accept and appreciate the government’s formal apology in 2021 for the dawn raids – early morning arrests of suspected Pacific overstayers. 

That apology will be even harder to accept with the recent revelation that Immigration NZ continues to conduct early morning arrests on suspected overstayers. 

Words of affirmation are nice and all but mean nothing unless accompanied by actions. And the words were nice. I was there at the town hall and watched as Jacinda Ardern spoke earnestly about the impacts previous governments’ actions continue to have on Pacific people in Aotearoa. She lowered herself beneath a fine mat in a gesture of acceptance and responsibility before her apology. And at the end, she acknowledged that “in many cultures, including in Pacific cultures, words alone are not sufficient to convey an apology and it is appropriate to include tangible gestures of goodwill and reconciliation.”

The gesture that many had hoped for was the repealing of the racist Citizenship (Western Samoa) Act 1982 and the granting of amnesty to the nearly 2,500 Tongan overstayers living illegally in New Zealand at the time. Neither of those actions were taken. Instead, there were promises of scholarships, history resources and financial support for communities to “develop a comprehensive historical record of account of the dawn raids period”. The latter action resulted in tiny financial grants being given to local Pacific people under strict conditions.

At no point was there a promise to not, you know, raid homes at dawn any more. Presumably this promise wasn’t given as it was understood that the dawn raids ended in 1976. But last week, police showed up at a South Auckland home at 5am to take a Tongan man into custody as a suspected overstayer. Immigration disputed the time and said the officers had arrived at 6am, not 5am. Both times are well before dawn. 

623 raids visits

Immigration NZ confirmed on Tuesday that since July 2022 and April 2023, 623 people were contacted by Immigration who were deemed to be overstaying and either “voluntarily departed” or were deported. Of those contacts, 3% (about 18 or 19, and not including last week’s visit) were conducted “outside of hours” – after 9pm or before 7am. Alison McDonald, head of Immigration NZ, told the Spinoff in a statement that “Immigration New Zealand does not carry out raids” but rather undertakes “compliance visits” to addresses of overstayers.

“These visits involve immigration officers attending properties, engaging respectfully with the occupants and only where appropriate detaining people who are in the country unlawfully. If no-one is present the officers leave and return at a later date,” said McDonald. 

In this most recent case, the man’s lawyer, Soane Foliaki, told Tagata Pasifika that the family were still asleep when the officers banged on the door and the children downstairs were “terrified”.

The government steps in

The prime minister commented on Tuesday morning that early morning “visits” were concerning to him and “aren’t the sorts of tactics that I would expect us to be using in New Zealand”. An unsurprising stance given the recent very public attempts from the government to extract itself from the shadow of the 1970s dawn raids.

Immigration minister Michael Wood sent a “please explain” letter to Immigration, leading to “a change in our process”, said McDonald. From now on it is required that “any visits outside of standard hours are authorised by me personally”.

Unnecessary overstayers

The need to pay early morning visits to overstayers raises questions about the existence of overstayers at all. As McDonald herself noted, “Most of those unlawfully in New Zealand are not criminals.  They choose to remain here for a number of reasons such as employment and family.” In those cases, Immigration actively case manages them towards a “voluntary departure”. 

To be clear, these people are not genuinely volunteering to leave or they would already be gone. A voluntary departure is simply a wish to avoid greater penalties for attempting to stay with one’s family or income. 

Of the 3% of after hours arrests, two were Tongan (plus the man last week) and one Sāmoan with the rest being Chinese, Indian, Indonesian and Malaysian. McDonald said the vast majority of overstayers leave the country after one visit from immigration officers. But is the very process of detaining and deporting non-criminal overstayers worth the time and resource?

The case for amnesty

In 2000, the government granted amnesty to the then 7,000 “well-settled” overstayers. At the time, immigration minister Lianne Dalziel said: “You have to ask whether people who are well-settled, tax-paying, law-abiding people with strong family and community connections should in fact be sent ‘home’ when ‘home’ is really New Zealand.” The man detained last week is the main income provider for his family and has been in a relationship with a New Zealand citizen for “some years” and who helps care for his children. 

On Tuesday, after calls were made once again (including by the Green Party) to grant amnesty to current overstayers, Wood said he would be making a decision “quite soon”. “I have received advice from officials on it. We are taking our time to work it through, it would be a very significant undertaking,” he said. “The last time one was done was 22 years ago, and it does have broader implications within the immigration system.”

Whatever his decision, the practice of arresting overstayers in their homes at dawn will continue to be a source of trauma for Pacific people, no matter how nicely worded the “visits” are or how often the prime minister of the time apologises.

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