Dawn Raids of New Zealand

-Ashish Manav

“I stand on behalf of the New Zealand government to offer a formal and unreserved apology to Pacific communities for the discriminatory implementation of the immigration laws of the 1970s that led to the events of the Dawn Raids.” Thunderous claps filled the Auckland Town Hall moments after prime minister Jacinda Ardern formally apologised on behalf of the government regimes during the mid 1970s to the early 1980s. The act of apology has come after nearly 50 years since the New Zealand government unabashedly conducted police raids against illegal overstayers of the Pacific Islands.

New Zealand PM Ardern apologizes for the Dawn Raids|Getty Images AsiaPac (August 1, 2021)

What were the Dawn Raids?

The Dawn Raids were a series of government operations involving special police force that conducted incursions on the homes and workplaces of immigrants who had been living in the country after their visas got expired. These raids were often administered at dawn, hence the name. Initially started by Norman Kirk’s Labour Government in 1973, the raids involved Police armed with dogs who used to wake up the overstayers at 3 or 4 A.M. and took them to police station for interrogation, after which they used to get deported, while their children were often taken to state care homes.

New Zealand police forcing an overstayer into submission during Dawn Raids| A still from the file clip


Illustration depicting Dawn Raids| Police taking an overstayer at Dawn (Rise Up: The Story of the Dawn Raids and the Polynesian Panthers by Pauline Vaeluaga Smith)

Police putting a Polynesian in the van for interrogation during the Dawn Raids| Retrieved from https://www.nzonscreen.com/title/dawn-raids-2005

A child peers through the door of a solicitor's office in 1976, where hundreds sought advice on the Government's overstaers olic Photo / NZ Herald

Who were the victims?

Owing to favourable immigration policies in an attempt to fill a labour shortage caused by the post-war economic boom, New Zealand saw a steep rise in the Pacific Islander population that had grown to 45,000 by the onset of 1970s. However, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the economy started to dwindle, which resulted in unemployment, increased crime and other social maligns, affecting the Pacific Islanders community appallingly. What’s fascinating is that the Pacific Islanders weren’t the only group of people who were staying in New Zealand after the visas got expired.

A study in 1985-86 had found that Polynesians only accounted for a third of overstayers, being considerably lesser in numbers than their British, American, Australia, Canada and South African counterparts. However, these Pacific Islanders made up nearly 86% of those that were raided, interrogated, arrested and prosecuted.

The Retaliation

Polynesian Panthers, a revolutionary social justice movement, commenced to tackle the racial prejudice against Pasifika in New Zealand became a strong resistance force during the Dawn Raids in the 70s and 80s. The group comprised young adults, many of whom have been ex-gang members, college students who were Polynesians and Maoris.

During the government’s insolent decisions leading upto the Dawn Raids, the members of the Polynesian Panthers actively protested against the unjust police brutality and racial prejudice towards the Pacific Islanders. The group organised “counter raids” on the homes and offices of major cabinet members, and provided legal assistance to the detainees.

Pamphlet calling for the end of Dawn Raids on overstayers| (https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/ dawn-raids)

Polynesian Panthers Party protest in 1972| John Miller

Polynesian Panthers at a rally against the Dawn Raids (https://polypanthers.weebly.com/)

The aftermath

Moments after prime minister Jacinda Ardern delivered the much awaited formal apology, she expressed her desire to “pave a new dawn” for Pacific communities announcing $3.0 million NZD in scholarships to Pacific students both in New Zealand and the region. It has also been announced that Dawn Raids will be incorporated in school curriculum throughout the country.

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