The call for an apology for the Dawn Raids is gaining momentum. It was 47 years ago last month that the first of these raids took place, ending with the Labour government describing them as “alien to the New Zealand way of life”. Joris de Bres, a former Race Relations Commissioner, recalls the nightmare events of that month, which were a forerunner to even worse police actions to come under the subsequent National government.


The big wooden villa on the corner of Crummer Road and Turakina Street was like many others in the older parts of the Auckland suburb of Grey Lynn. But, in the evenings and on weekends, it thronged with people, and rang with beautiful Tongan hymn singing. 

Downstairs, under the back of the house, there was ample room for mats and tables for the regular weekend feasts. It was the makeshift headquarters of the Free Church of Tonga, a vibrant, indigenous offshoot of Methodism, a people’s church which had defied the colonial establishment in the 19th century. As such, it was more true to its Wesleyan roots than to the official church.

On the evening of March 19, 1974, church members arrived as usual for an evening prayer meeting after their day’s work on the assembly lines of Auckland’s factories. They were among thousands of Tongans who’d been lured to New Zealand by labour-hungry employers seeking to take advantage of an economic upswing.  

They came on three-month visitor permits. Most stayed on, with the connivance of their employers, to make enough money to pay back their airfares and make their trip worthwhile.  

Often, their passports were held by travel agents as a bond against repayment of their borrowed fares. The problem was that, under New Zealand’s immigration law, the police had the right to take anyone into custody who they suspected of being an illegal immigrant and who didn’t have a passport in their immediate possession. They could be held in prison until they were deported.

This particular evening, the tone was subdued and anxious, and the talk was about the people they knew, including church members, who’d been pulled out of their beds by the police between midnight and 3am in Onehunga the week before.  

Thirteen people had been arrested and taken to Auckland Central Police Station. Deep in the previous night, there’d been more raids, and another 21 Tongans had been taken away.  

No one was safe. The police just went to addresses where they knew Tongans lived, maybe tipped off by a disgruntled neighbour. And the checks were indiscriminate.  

Everyone had to produce proof of their identity or face arrest. Men hadn’t even been given time to dress or put on their shoes — and family or friends felt shame when they appeared, dishevelled, in the courtroom the next morning. Most had been remanded in custody to Mt Eden Prison.

A brave Tongan spokesperson told a newspaper reporter: “It’s as if these people have committed some ghastly crime — a murder, or rape. Does any person deserve to be hauled away in the middle of the night because he has overstayed a permit?”   

The newspapers had been full of it, and the clippings were passed around and translated. They were frightened at the publicity and worried it would make things worse. But they nodded their heads in agreement with the people who were speaking up for them and calling for the raids to stop.  

There was comfort in being at the church. It was a safe haven from the suddenly threatening world of the night at home, a place with friends and family who could be trusted, in the presence of their God. 

It was like the church of the early Christians, and the fervent prayers were about their own persecution. The singing was even more heartfelt than usual.

Then, suddenly, there was panic. Police swarmed through the house, with dogs. There was no way out. People huddled together as the house was searched, and immigration officers asked them, one by one, for proof of their identity.  

By now, those who could produce their passport carried it with them. But the unlucky ones were taken out, and then disappeared — heads bowed and shoulders hunched in fear and shame — through the doors of the police van. 

The minister, who a short time before had been leading them in prayer, was among them. He couldn’t produce his passport, even though he was legally in the country. No one and nowhere was safe anymore. What had become of the dream that had brought them to New Zealand?

The public outcry was mounting, and the government was under pressure from the media as well as from churches, trade unions, civil liberties and community groups. 

Two days later, the Minister of Immigration announced that dawn raids to pick up illegal immigrants were to cease immediately. They were, he said, “alien to the New Zealand way of life”.

At that time, I was Secretary of the Citizens’ Association for Racial Equality (CARE) and I dealt with regular cases of racial discrimination. But I had never felt so ashamed and outraged as I did that week at the way these Tongan migrant workers were being treated.  

The morning after the raid on the church, the minister’s wife came to tell me what had happened. She was in despair. But what was being done to her people was enough for her to overcome her normal shyness and reluctance to enter the political arena. Something had to be done, she said.

Her husband had been released once the papers were produced, but the other men joined the growing numbers in the remand wing of the prison. Word got out that 15 of them were to be deported on the Ocean Monarch on the following Sunday, March 31.  

The Ocean Monarch was one of the ships that brought European immigrants to New Zealand in the 1950s and ‘60s. But now it was a cruise ship, mainly catering to the North American market, calling in at Auckland before heading up to Nuku’alofa. 

The thought of a former white migrant ship, full of holidaying Americans, being used as a deportation vessel was especially offensive.

We decided to picket the ship, and to urge the crew to refuse to sail with the deportees on board. Auckland Trades Council representatives were supportive but they didn’t hold out much hope. The chances of the crew of a cruise ship acting in international solidarity with Pacific Island workers were not rated as high. 

But, early on Sunday morning, a small group of us gathered outside the gates of the Overseas Passenger Terminal at Princes Wharf. The Tongan church minister and his wife were with us, incongruously rubbing shoulders with a few activists from the Communist Party and the Socialist Unity Party, as well as members of CARE, the Polynesian Panthers, and Ngā Tamatoa.  

Trades Council officials and representatives of the Sāmoan branch of the Labour Party joined us later in the morning. We had a few posters and banners — and, as the passengers disembarked for their tours or waterfront walks, we gave them a leaflet about the dawn raids.

We told them that their cruise liner would be a prison ship for the next leg of their journey. They were mildly intrigued, took a photograph or two, and went on their way. We weren’t optimistic about success, but the media took enough interest to make it worthwhile.

About lunch time, a member of the crew came out to talk to us. He read the leaflet and asked some questions. He seemed genuinely concerned. Then he told us that he hated working on the Ocean Monarch, that the conditions were lousy, and that he wanted to jump ship. 

He asked us if we could put him up somewhere for a few days. But first he would take some leaflets on board, see if he could get a meeting of the crew, and suggest that they refuse to sail if they had to take the Tongans. It seemed worth a try, and we agreed.

It was several hours before we saw him again, this time with his belongings. He grinned and gave us the thumbs-up. A meeting had been held, the crew had passed a resolution and conveyed it to the captain. After a few hurried calls, amidst concern at the bad publicity the company was receiving, the captain had advised the authorities that he was unwilling to take the extra passengers.

Next morning’s newspapers carried the story as the lead throughout the country. That afternoon, Norman Kirk, the prime minister, announced that the government was suspending all entry permits for Tongans while a new work scheme was negotiated.  

In the meantime, existing illegal immigrants would be given a chance to declare their presence and gain time to earn enough money to go home without arrest and deportation. They would be given lengthier extensions if their employer certified that they were “key workers”.  

Over the next few months, three and a half thousand Tongan workers applied, 1500 went home, and 2000 were given longer extensions.

The English seaman stayed for a few days, then disappeared into anonymity. There was little risk of him being discovered, as long as he kept out of the way of the authorities. He would simply blend into the mass of the white population.

I suspect the decision to conduct the dawn raids was operational rather than political. To its credit, the Labour government forbade their further use. However, the issue of “Pacific Island overstayers” remained in the public eye and was exploited, through racist cartoons, by the Muldoon-led National Party in the subsequent election campaign.

Much worse police action, including renewed dawn raids and random checks of “anyone who speaks in a non-Kiwi accent or looks as though he was not born in this country”, was to follow their election victory in 1975.

It was an ugly chapter in Aotearoa’s Pacific history.


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. He grew up in the Hutt Valley and Auckland, and lives in Wellington.

© E-Tangata, 2021

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