A 1975 National Party TV advertisement targeting Pacific Island immigrants. (Screenshot)

Joris de Bres, a former Race Relations Commissioner, on the “White New Zealand” immigration policy and why the government should apologise for the Dawn Raids.


Support is growing for the Polynesian Panther Party’s 50th anniversary call for a government apology and amends for the Dawn Raids of the 1970s. The prime minister has said her government is considering the matter.

So what is there to apologise for?

1. New Zealand’s “whites only” immigration policy.

First, there is New Zealand’s “whites only” immigration policy. This lies at the heart of the situation in which migrant workers from the Pacific found themselves when they were recruited to come here in the 1970s.

For the first three quarters of the 20th century (and earlier), New Zealand immigration policy was totally racist. When immigration permits became required by the 1920 Immigration Restriction Act, “those of British birth and parentage and European race and colour” were exempted from the provision.

A cabinet paper in 1950 stated that “it is broadly accepted that immigrants should be drawn from White (European) peoples and that admission of coloured races should be closely restricted”.

Dutch, Scandinavians, Swiss, and Germans were added to those eligible to have their passage to New Zealand subsidised after the war.

Tens of thousands of white migrants took advantage of this or migrated independently until the 1970s. Australians also had free entry. In time, “wholly European people” from the USA and South Africa were added to the list of desirable immigrants.

Meanwhile, non-white people from Western Sāmoa and the Cook Islands needed a permit to migrate to New Zealand, even though they lived in New Zealand-administered territories. And they were only granted a permit if they could demonstrate they were “living according to European standards”.

As late as 1974, New Zealand consular instructions stated that permits were only to be issued to people of “European race and colour” although staff were advised not to use this term publicly as it might be embarrassing.

While some limited provision was made for migrants from Western Sāmoa after it became independent of New Zealand rule in 1962 — and while the New Zealand citizenship of people from Niue, Tokelau and the Cook Islands was recognised — most Sāmoans, Tongans and Fijians could only come to New Zealand on three-month visitor permits. When these expired, they were deemed to be overstayers in breach of the Immigration Act, and thus construed as criminals.

Picture the difference. Tens of thousands of white migrants from Europe and elsewhere are able to come to New Zealand permanently without any restriction and no skill requirement and enjoy access to social security. At the same time, a much smaller number of migrants from the Pacific are only allowed to enter on short-term visitor permits with no access to social security, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and deportation if they remain longer.

Although migrants from the Pacific were the first major non-white group to break through the whites-only immigration barrier, they did so at a severe cost in terms of the conditions of their settlement and the prejudice they faced from politicians, the media, and the community.

New Zealand’s immigration policy treated them as unsuitable for permanent settlement but useful to meet short-term labour requirements. They are owed an apology for the way they were discriminated against in New Zealand’s immigration policy.

2. Government complicity in migrant workers overstaying their permits.

Second, employers knowingly recruited workers on visitor permits and the government turned a blind eye, thereby giving tacit consent.

In the early 1970s, New Zealand experienced an economic boom and a consequent labour shortage, particularly in the manufacturing sector.

Employers actively recruited workers from the Pacific knowing they would be in breach of their permits within a few months. In some cases, they paid recruitment agents $20–$50 a head for them. Workers had to stay for longer than their permits allowed if they were going to pay off their borrowed fares, accommodation and other costs — and still save some money for their families back home.

The government was complicit in this process, issuing permits and not pursuing overstayers. Immigration officials followed up individual cases when they came to their attention, but they knew the scale of overstaying and chose not to do anything about it.

The immigration minister Fraser Coleman conceded to the Tonga Chronicle in May 1974 that “the Government has to face the fact that New Zealand industry was dependent on illegal Island labour” and that “unless they used such labour, production and export targets would not be met”.

When the economy went into sharp decline because of the “oil shock” and Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community, the government turned off the tap of migrant labour from the Pacific and actively sought to remove those it had effectively allowed to overstay their permits.

The government should apologise for this shameless exploitation of migrant workers from the Pacific.

3. The racist persecution of Pasifika migrant workers and communities

Third, migrant workers from the Pacific, and Pasifika communities in general, were persecuted by police and immigration officials in a succession of campaigns over a number of years as the economic recession took effect.

This began with dawn raids in March 1974, and was followed by the formation of the Auckland Police Task Force in June 1974, which arrested Māori and Pasifika people in hotels and on the streets. It continued, in February 1976, with the resumption of dawn raids, followed by random checks of anyone who didn’t “look like a kiwi” (in what they called “Operation Pot Black”).

This is what people tend to focus on when discussing the need for an apology. The shocking way in which Pacific communities were treated throughout this period totally warrants an apology both from the government and from the two agencies, police and immigration, who undertook the campaigns.

But the apology should extend to the circumstances which gave rise to this situation, as outlined above. It should also include the demonisation of overstayers and Pacific communities that accompanied these campaigns.

4. The demonisation of Pacific migrant workers and Pasifika communities.

Fourth, the demonisation of Pasifika peoples was a result of government, political party and media portrayals of overstayers from the Pacific.

Ultimately “overstayers” and “Pacific Islanders” largely became synonymous in the public mind and were unjustly equated with law-breaking and a wide variety of social ills, including violent crime and pressures on housing, health and employment.

The 1975 election campaign by the National Party cynically exploited these stereotypes, including the most appalling, overtly racist election advertisements. National went on to become the government and unleashed the second and more severe series of dawn raids and random checks.

The government must acknowledge that ugly racial stereotypes were officially promoted for political gain, leaving a lasting legacy of prejudice against Pasifika peoples in New Zealand.

In the spirit of Stuff’s recent Our Truth: Tā Mātou Pono initiative, the media should also examine the part they played in this, and apologise.

Making amends.

An apology must be accompanied by actions and commitments that recognise the ongoing effects of the racism, discrimination and persecution experienced by those who were part of the major migration of Pasifika peoples to Aotearoa New Zealand in the 1970s.

A range of suggestions have been made, but these should be negotiated with Pasifika communities.

A pathway to residency for current overstayers would have symbolic power and should be considered. There have been previous amnesties, the last being 20 years ago. It’s time for another.

The government should also ensure that research and education about New Zealand’s racist immigration policy and the Dawn Raids is an ongoing responsibility. Further improvements to the RSE seasonal work scheme and other immigration-related policies are also called for, in consultation with Pacific nations.

It’s also important to take new initiatives to address the social and economic inequalities experienced by Pasifika communities which can be traced back to the way they were treated in the past.


Joris de Bres was born in the Netherlands and came to Aotearoa when he was seven as part of a family of nine. He served as Race Relations Commissioner from 2002-2013. He was previously General Manager External Relations in the Department of Conservation and Head of Industrial Relations in the New Zealand Public Service Association. Joris grew up in the Hutt Valley and Auckland, and lives in Wellington.

© E-Tangata, 2021

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