On Sunday, hundreds of people packed Auckland Town Hall to hear New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern formally apologise for police crackdowns in the 1970s which “unfairly targeted” the country’s Pacific community.
The “dawn raids” were carried out by officers and immigration officials, often accompanied by dogs, with the aim of arresting and deporting individuals who had overstayed their work visas.
It was a defining era, Ardern said in June, after a Cabinet press conference, with impacts still felt today by Pacific peoples.
The raids were frequently severe, with officials behaving in demeaning ways and carrying out dehumanising physical treatment. There were also random checks that racially targeted Pasifika and people of colour, including Māori people.
The dawn raids were “…a defining moment in New Zealand’s history and the emotional harm caused by them remains etched in the living memory of those who were directly impacted,” Ardern said in June.
“Communities at the time felt targeted and terrorised and there is clear evidence the raids were discriminatory and have had a lasting negative impact.”
“An apology can never reverse what happened or undo the damage caused but we can acknowledge it and we can seek to right a wrong.”
In the 1970s, Pasifika in New Zealand comprised a third of overstayers but represented 86 percent of prosecutions, while U.K citizens and Americans in the country, who also made up a third of overstayers — saw only 5 percent of prosecutions in the same era.
“Today, I stand on behalf of the New Zealand government to offer a formal and unreserved apology to Pacific communities for the discriminatory implementation of the immigration laws of the 1970s,” Ardern said on Sunday.
Despite taking place almost half a century ago, Ardern said the raids remained strongly etched in the memories of those affected and remained “in the disruption of trust and faith in authorities”.
Arden also participated in a traditional Samoan ritual known as an Ifoga, where subjects seek forgiveness by exposing themselves to a sort of public humiliation.
Members of the Pacific Island community pulled a large white fabric over Ardern’s head as she sat on a chair, completely covering her. Moments later, they removed the white fabric and embraced her one by one.
William Sio, Minister for Pacific Peoples, who emigrated with his family from Samoa to New Zealand in 1969, described the raids as “racism of the worst kind”.
After World War II, Wellington encouraged migration from Pacific islands such as Samoa, Tonga and Fiji to fill worker shortages as the economy grew.
However, many people who migrated faced discrimination during the 1970s, with claims they were stripping jobs from New Zealanders.
“The memories are etched in of my father being helpless … someone knocking at your door in the early hours of the morning with a flashlight in your face, disrespecting the owner of our home,” he told the ABC.
“An Alsatian dog frothing at the mouth, wanting to come in without any respect for the people who live there. It was quite traumatising.”
Tongan Princess Mele Siu’ilikutapu Kalaniuvalu Fotofili said the impact of the dawn raids had haunted her community for generations.
“We are grateful to your government for making the right decision to apologise,” she said to Ardern.
“To right the extreme, inhumane, racist and unjust treatment, specifically against my community, in the dawn raids era.”
Fotofili added that while some members of her Tongan community may have been on the wrong side of the law at that time, it did not excuse or warrant the extreme measures taken against them.
Ardern said New Zealand was committed to eliminating racism and hopes the apology will bring “some much-needed closure and healing for our Pacific communities”.
On her Instagram account, Ardern reiterated the official apology.
“The Government expresses its sorrow, remorse, and regret that the Dawn Raids and random police checks occurred and that these actions were ever considered appropriate.”
“Our Government conveys to the future generations of Aotearoa that the past actions of the Crown were wrong, and that the treatment of your ancestors was wrong. We convey to you our deepest and sincerest apology.”
Photo: AP: Brett Phibbs/New Zealand Herald