WELLINGTON, New Zealand – Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, sat motionless on Sunday while members of the Pacific Islands community threw a large white rug over her head, completely covering her. Moments later, they pulled her away and hugged her.
It was part of an emotional celebration at Auckland City Hall where Ardern formally apologized for a racist part of the nation’s history known as Dawn Raid.
At the time, the Pacifica people were targeted for deportation in the mid-1970s during aggressive raids by authorities to find, convict and deport those whose visas had expired. The raids often took place very early in the morning or late in the evening.
Covered in a carpet, the Ardern was participating in a traditional Samoan ritual known as ifoga, in which a person seeks forgiveness by subjecting oneself to some kind of public humiliation.
Ardern tearfully told a crowd of hundreds that the government is offering an unreserved formal apology.
“The government expresses its regret, remorse and regret that police carried out surprise raids and random police searches, and considered these measures entirely appropriate,” Ardern said.
At the time of the raids, many Pacific residents had come to New Zealand on temporary visas to help meet the need for workers in the country’s factories and fields. But the government appears to be turning against the company when it has decided that these workers are no longer needed.
People who don’t look like white New Zealanders have been told they need to carry identification cards to prove they haven’t been away for long, and are often stopped randomly on the street, or even at schools or churches. Although many of the survivors at the time were British or American, people from the Pacific were targeted for deportation.
Ardern said that although the raids took place nearly 50 years ago, their legacy lives on.
“It remains vividly engraved in the memory of those directly affected. It lives in turmoil of trust in authorities. It lives in the unresolved grievances of the Pacific communities where these events have hitherto occurred. It is not addressed.”
As a goodwill gesture, Ardern said, the government will fund new education and training grants for Pacific communities and help compile an official raid report from written records and oral history.
“As part of this, the community will have the opportunity to come forward and share their experiences,” Ardern said.
Princess of Tonga Mele Siwelikotapu Kalanyuvalo Fotoveli said the impact of the dawn raids has haunted her community for generations.
“We are grateful to your government for making the right decision to apologize,” he told Ardern. “To correct extreme, inhuman, racist and unfair treatment, particularly against my community, in the era of the dawn raids.”
The princess said that although some members of her Tonga community were on the wrong side of the law at the time, that did not justify cracking down on them.
But the princess said the government could do a better job in responding to current immigration needs, a comment that drew continued applause. He said petitions had been made to find ways and accommodations for those who stayed past the deadline and for visa holders.
“This is a new dawn for my community and the Pacific community in general,” he said.
A party was originally scheduled for a Sunday in June but has been postponed due to coronavirus measures. The apology did not result in any financial compensation or broader legal changes, but many Pacific residents say it is an important first step.
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