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COMMENTARY: Tongan overstayers should be seen as refugees from an economic war against ordinary people

COMMENTARY: The New Zealand government should treat Tongan overstayers as people fleeing economic war and persecution.

Decades of corruption and mismanagement have led people to flee to New Zealand looking for a better life. Often, because of the way land is owned by the nobility. They have nothing to go back to.

Deputy PM Carmel Sepuloni is being questioned by the media after a public meeting that included government ministers and community leaders following an incident recently that was reminiscent of the Dawn Raids of the 1970s. Photo/John Pulu

Kaniva News does not condone law breaking, but in many cases those who overstay are really in the same position as those fleeing war or persecution. In this case it is an economic war against ordinary people and persecution by a corrupt system that favours the rich and powerful.

The dawn raids of the 1970s were a black page in New Zealand’s history and to see them again is deeply disturbing. The most recent case triggered outrage in New Zealand’s Tongan community whose members were upset by reports that children had been traumatised  by the early morning attack.

Immigration New Zealand called the raid an “out of hours immigration compliance visit.”

Tongan community leader Pakilau Manase Lua told a public meeting called after the latest incident: “We are crying for our dawn raiders, we are still being dawn raided.”

Such behaviour by police flies in the face of the Labour Party’s claims that its Children and Families policy puts “the wellbeing of children at the centre of everything we do.”

The dawn raids are uncivilised,  inhumane and have no place in New Zealand when human rights are at the core of everything we do to eliminate violence against human beings. They should be scrapped.

New Zealand has a long history of offering a safe home to people fleeing war or persecution especially from the Middle East. Under its Ethnic Communities policy the Labour government has increased the refugee quota to 1,500 places per year and has boosted support to refugee communities already in Aotearoa, helping people reunite with family and supporting their settlement.

The government should re-examine the case of Tongans who come to this country and treat them as refugees. Although they have not fled a physical war or persecution in Tonga, in reality, years of corrupt behaviour by Tongan leaders has traumatised our people.

There is no Ministry of Social Development in Tonga, meaning there is no government help for the people living at the grassroots level. Jobs are scarce and the only reliable financial assistance available is the remittances sent from the kāinga in New Zealand and other countries to Tonga.

Yet while many of the kingdom’s 105,000 people live in poverty, the  king is given a budget of about $TP5 million a year from taxpayers’ money. Each noble is given a salary of more than  $TP20,000 a year, something  that has been criticised for years because there is no job description to justify the Treasury paying out these salaries. The nobles are  paid just for being nobles.

Tonga’s political system and constitution have been described by a Commonwealth Lawyer as the worst among all the Commonwealth countries. A poor constitution allows corruption and abuses of power by government leaders. It brings untold moral harm at the grassroots level.  

Ordinary Tongans have seen classic examples of these abuses such as the transfer of tens of millions of pa’anga from a Chinese payment to Princess Pilolevu’s Tongasat company, condemned as illegal by the Supreme Court.

The former government of the late Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa  was accused of creating its own multi-million roading project just to please some of his Cabinet Ministers who helped him win the premiership election. That roading project was estimated to cost $TP$400 million. It was heavily criticised, with many saying the budget would devastate Tonga’s annual national budgets, which relies heavily on overseas donations, for years. However,  Tu’i’onetoa went ahead and approved it and that was his constitutional right to do so.

Some abuses and examples of questionable behaviour go back decades, such as the fate of the $TP119 million loan from China to rebuild Nuku’alofa after the 2006 riots. Critics said that the amount of the loan was imprudent and would burden taxpayers for ages. It was estimated by some economists that the loan should have only be $TP20-30 million. The then Prime Minister Sevele was later accused of not re-paying the money he used to rebuild his business which was burnt down in the disturbances.

About 30 percent of the land in Tonga is controlled by the nobility and the king. This means that most people living on these lands do not legally own them. They are obliged to donate to the nobility from time to time and in some cases, some people have been evicted when they have not donated.

Ordinary Tongans are facing an economic war and persecution and this is why many have overstayed their visas in New Zealand. They do not want to go back and face this war. Rather than stage dawn raids, the New Zealand government should help them.

For more information

‘We’re still being dawn raided’, Tongan leader tells emotional public meeting

Review into out of hours immigration compliance visits

The unwelcome return of dawn raid tactics

Tongasat case “of national importance” says judge as he declares payments were illegal

The dawn raids: causes, impacts and legacy