Beginning in 1974, New Zealand police armed with dogs woke up Pacific Islanders who allegedly overstayed their visas at dawn, pushed them into police vans for questioning, then often deported them and placed their children in state care homes. The early morning operation became known as the “Dawn Raids.”
Nearly 50 years later, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Sunday formally apologized for those raids and the lasting hurt they have caused. Ardern expressed the government’s “sorrow, remorse and regret” over the raids.
New Zealand welcomed thousands of Pacific Islanders after World War Two to help fill a labor shortage. There were more than 65,000 Pacific Islanders in the country by 1976. But an economic crisis later caused unemployment to rise, and migrants were blamed.
Along with raids at homes, workplaces, schools and places of worship, police targeted non-white New Zealanders by forcing them to carry a passport at all times. Pacific Islanders were disproportionately impacted by the raids, even though most visa overstayers were from Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
Ardern Says The Raids Have Caused Lasting Pain
“It remains vividly etched in the memory of those who were directly impacted, it lives on in the disruption of trust and faith in authorities, and it lives on in the unresolved grievances of Pacific communities that these events happened and that to this day they have gone unaddressed,” Ardern said at a gathering of affected families in Auckland as they wiped away tears.
Pacific Islanders in the country still “suffer the scars” from the discriminatory policy, Ardern said. She said she hopes the apology brings some much-needed closure to New Zealand’s Pacific Islander communities.
Ardern was cloaked with a large white woven mat in a traditional Samoan ifoga ceremony where people ask for forgiveness. It was then removed by members of the Pacific community, a gesture of forgiveness.
Victims Spoke About Their Trauma
New Zealand’s minister for Pacific Peoples, Aupito William Sio, born in Samoa, was a victim of the Dawn Raids when he was a teen. He said that the day of the raid remains etched into his memory.
“To have someone knocking on the door in the early hours, flashlight in your face, disrespecting the owner of the home, with an Alsatian dog frothing at the mouth wanting to come in … It is quite traumatizing,” he said in June.
The immigration policy sparked outrage from religious, political and civil groups until it was eventually halted by the 1980s. A 1986 report found that while Pacific peoples comprised roughly a third of overstayers, they represented 86% of prosecutions. During the same period, overstayers from the United States and Great Britain, who also comprised roughly a third of overstayers, made up only 5% of prosecutions.
Tongan Princess Mele Siuʻilikutapu tearfully applauded the New Zealand government’s attempt to address the “inhumane and unjust” treatment of her people. She called the apology “a dawn for my community.”
“This is part of deep and longer conversations and one of the gifts that was offered tonight is a comprehensive history of the Dawn Raids, and we intend to ensure that our Pacific communities will have the opportunity to come forward to tell their stories,” Sio said after the apology.