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New Zealand Apologizes for Dawn Raids on Migrants in 1970s

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, center, is covered during a ceremony in Auckland, Aug. 1, 2021, to formally apologize for a racially charged part of the nation's history known as the Dawn Raids.

New Zealand has formally apologized to the Pacific community which felt “terrorized" during police raids searching for visa overstayers in the 1970s. The so-called Dawn Raids, carried out between 1974 and 1976, targeted only people from the Pacific Islands even though statistics showed the vast majority of overstayers were from Europe and the United States.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the immigration raids were “dehumanizing.” Speaking at Auckland Town Hall, she expressed her government’s “sorrow and remorse.” She acknowledged the “distress and hurt the raids” had caused.

Many Pacific Islanders moved to New Zealand after World War II to boost a work force ravaged by conflict overseas. By 1976, they made up just over 2% of the population, or about 65,000 people, according to the national census.

As the economy faltered, though, Samoans, Tongans and other Pacific Islanders who had arrived as desperately needed migrant workers were suddenly accused of taking jobs away from New Zealanders.

That prompted a crackdown by the police on those suspected of overstaying their visas. Churches, schools and workplaces were routinely raided, as were homes -- often in the middle of the night.

New Zealand’s Minister for Pacific Peoples Aupito William Sio recalled when his family was targeted.

“To have somebody knocking at the door in the early hours of the morning with a flashlight in your face, disrespecting the owner of the home, with an Alsatian dog frothing at the mouth at your door, and wanting to come in without any respect for the people living in there is quite traumatizing. I have had sisters say, oh, my goodness, I never, ever want to think about that. That is just my family – that is replicated across the Pacific community,” he said.

Thousands of people were arrested and deported, and many have recalled their “humiliation and pain.” Both major political parties in New Zealand have accepted that the raids were racist. British and American visitors, who made up about 40% of overstayers at the time, were rarely targeted by the authorities.

New Zealand governments rarely make formal apologies for past injustices.

Ardern also announced that education scholarships would be provided to Pacific communities in New Zealand, including those from Samoa, the Cook Islands, Fiji, and Kiribati.