“Apologising for the Dawn Raids was the right thing to do. But it must be backed up by sincere and meaningful action,” writes Pakilau Manase Lua. The Dawn Raids apology was delivered by then prime minister Jacinda Ardern, pictured here in 2021 during the Sāmoan ifoga ceremonial apology. (Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi)

After Jacinda Ardern’s Dawn Raids apology in 2021, most, perhaps all of us, expected dawn raids to be a thing of the past. But then it was revealed that a Tongan man had been dawn-raided as recently as April this year — and that prompted an independent review by King’s Counsel Mike Heron. His report was released last week. Here’s Pakilau Manase Lua on the official response to that.


It seems the review into recent early morning raids of suspected overstayers wasn’t a review of “dawn raids”, but rather a review of “out of hours immigration compliance activity”. So what we used to be able to say in two words now takes six.

The resulting report, by Mike Heron KC, confirmed several things for me. Mainly, that MBIE and Immigration NZ senior executives have their heads buried deeply in the sand.

MBIE’s chief executive, Carolyn Tremain, has said publicly that she simply doesn’t agree that these “out-of-hours visits to residential addresses by compliance officers for deportation purposes” are akin to the Dawn Raids that the prime minister apologised for in 2021.

Hang on, did I miss something? Does she think that her staff just pop into people’s homes unannounced at 6am for a friendly cuppa over some scones?

The Dawn Raids of the 1970s involved the racial targeting of certain people as overstayers for deportation, and not others. Pacific people accounted for a third of overstayers, yet were 86 percent of those who were prosecuted. Meanwhile, UK and US citizens, who made up another third of overstayers, were only 5 percent of prosecutions.

Statistics released in this week’s report from Immigration NZ show that people of colour make up the vast majority of those who come to the attention of the compliance teams.

But Carolyn Tremain says that what’s happening now aren’t like the 1970s because those “dawn raids were a particular style of activity . . .”

Does she mean in contrast to the style of what she euphemistically calls “compliance visits”? Where her “visiting” teams wear uniforms and clandestinely stake out and surround someone’s home while the kids are sleeping, with police as backup at the ready, in the early hours of the morning? Where they forcibly detain them for deportation in front of their children in the sanctity and sanctuary of their own home? That style?

Even without the dogs, that’s a bloody dawn raid to me. And I should know.

My family migrated here to Aotearoa from Tonga right in the thick of the Dawn Raids in 1975. As children of the Dawn Raids, my sister and I can recall Mum and Dad moving us from house to house. We lived in constant fear, looking over our shoulders, dreading what the early morning might bring. Brown people had to carry passports around to show the cops you were legally entitled to be here back then.

When our street was raided and my uncles took the hit for us and got deported, we fled up north to Awarua, near Kaikohe. We found sanctuary with Māori whānau up there who took us under their wing. I will never forget or be able to repay my debt of gratitude to them. The Far North has become my second spiritual home after Tonga because we felt safe there, and welcome. Early morning knocks at the front door were always for an actual cuppa, a friendly visit, or just someone wanting to kōrero.

Despite her assertions that it’s all so different now, Carolyn Tremain has magnanimously agreed to “continuing a pause” on these non-dawn non-raids following the release of the review.

Doing news interviews after its release, she made several further careful and soothing statements.

“I do want to again acknowledge the impact the Dawn Raids of the 1970s had on the Pacific community and that the trauma from those remains today,” she said. “We know we have more to do as we learn from the past to shape the future.”

Is she saying that they’ll now solve the root cause of the issue, and address the fact that people are forced to overstay here because there’s no viable pathway to residency?

Nope. MBIE curtailed any attempts to look at the wider immigration settings and to examine the reasons people overstay their visas. They set the terms of reference for the review to focus solely on the standard operating procedures of the department, primarily in relation to the case of the Tongan man whose dawn raid became public.

They wanted to be able to show us that this was not a dawn raid at all like in the ‘70s, because those were racially targeted, and these are not. But guess what? All the cases involved people of colour, mainly Chinese and Indian, and included three Pacific people. Of course, even one Pacific case is too many because that takes us to the fundamental question of what then was that Dawn Raids apology for, if not to ensure that it does not happen again?

What’s worse is that, in trying to avoid questions of race, they’ve cast further aspersions on this Tongan man (who from all accounts is a hardworking man trying to support his family) by implying that allegations of violence justified the visit. But according to the report itself, these were only ever allegations, made by the person who dobbed him in, and not substantiated.

So what exactly was involved in this compliance visit? For a start, eight people were deployed to detain one guy. Six compliance officers (scones and tea at the ready, I presume) and two police officers nearby on standby alert (to bring the jam and cream). Evidently, he went peacefully anyway, without a fuss.

Remaining in New Zealand without a visa was decriminalised in 1987. So, this action is way over the top. It reeks of too much power and control being devolved to people who are forced to make snap decisions often based on scant, third-hand information.

MBIE describes the compliance officer’s role quite clearly on its website. Words like “investigate”, “detain”, “assess risk”, “powers of search”, “use of force”, “taken into custody”, “deportation” are all over it. It’s hardly language that describes an innocuous compliance visitor charged with casually checking in on people from time to time, after hours, as suggested by the chief executive of MBIE.

Stay on the website and the language becomes even more detached from reality. “Our name speaks to our purpose, Grow Aotearoa New Zealand for All. To Grow Aotearoa New Zealand for All, we put people at the heart of our mahi.”

Really? If you want to grow New Zealand, then why not find a pathway for these people to stay, and not just deport them to meet your stated quota of at least 1500 deportations a year?

Many people visiting here during the 2020 and 2021 lockdowns became stuck due to border closures and Covid-19 restrictions. In some cases, their return home was further complicated by natural disasters like the volcanic eruption that hit the Kingdom of Tonga.

Tongans are arguably the progenitors of what we now call Polynesians or Pacific Islanders. Our ancestors, the Lapita people, first settled in Tonga, Fiji and Sāmoa and then paused for about a thousand years before the further expansion out to Eastern Polynesia. We traversed and colonised the great Moana for more than a millennia before Europeans even left their own shorelines. Our Māori cousins completed the last and most epic leg of this amazing human expansion and colonisation story, when they left Hawaiki, their home in the Pacific, to discover Aotearoa.

Tonga is geographically and genetically closer to New Zealand than Australia. Like Māori, we whakapapa to Māui and Tangaroa. Yet Tongans make up the highest number of “overstayers” here. We were the most targeted of the Pacific groups and the most deported during the Dawn Raids.

Mike Heron’s own words in the report were that the Dawn Raids apology appeared “to ring hollow”. For me, as a child of the Dawn Raids, and a Tongan, it was less a hollow ring than an unholy racket.

Apologising for the Dawn Raids was the right thing to do. But it must be backed up by sincere and meaningful action. Sadly, dawn raids are still occurring and there’s not a scone or cup of tea in sight.

Although I’ve been a professional and a manager for a long time and I earn a good crust, I still go to places where I’m ignored for service or people clutch their belongings or purses involuntarily when I walk pass them. I’ve become used to the suspicious looks. It could well be that I’m just big, ugly and scary-looking — I’m well north of 150kgs and over six feet tall. It’s human nature to judge based on what you can see, whether you’re black, white, brown or beige. We all do it.

I’ve also worked in the areas of mental health, addictions and disability for over 20 years. I’ve seen the evidence that Pacific Island and Māori men are forcibly detained and restrained more often than others. They’re clearly over-represented in restraint and seclusion in high-risk detainment units.

Clearly, there’s the risk of prejudice and cultural bias when people are given too much power and control in their own little patch, as seems to be the case for compliance officers.

So, how can we move forward? Grant an amnesty for all overstayers now. Or, at the very least, create viable pathways to residency. Bring some humanity to the process, and make an effort to understand who they are. Most overstayers just want a better life for themselves and their families.

When I look back to what it was like for our family in the ‘70s , I can’t help but think of the 1,000 or more children and their overstayer parents now here in Aotearoa, who’ll be living under the same shadow, with the same fear that we once knew.

For us, that ended in 1977, thanks to an amnesty under Rob Muldoon, of all people. So why is it so hard now?


Manase Lua was born in Tonga but migrated to Aotearoa in 1975, during the Dawn Raids. He hails from the village of Vaini in Tongatapu and Ha’afeva. He is a matāpule or talking chief with the title Pakilau o Aotearoa, installed by his chief Lord Ma’afu, the head of the Ha’a Havea clan. Manase is a community leader and activist working as a disability and diversity manager for Te Pou.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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