Dawn raids apology: Aupito William Sio opens up about ‘traumatising’ experience with family

An emotional Minister for Pacific Peoples Aupito William Sio has opened up about a “traumatising” dawn raid on his family when he was growing up in Auckland.

Sio stood alongside Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Monday as they announced the Government would officially apologise for the immigration raids of the mid-1970s that disproportionately targeted people of Pasifika heritage, suspected of overstaying their visas.

A study a decade later showed Polynesians had made up only a third of overstayers but more than 80 per cent of all prosecutions for overstaying.

Sio, who was born in Sāmoa and moved to Auckland with his family as a child, said he didn’t think there was any Pacific family in Aotearoa that would not have been affected in some way by the dawn raids, including his own.

“My own story, we were dawn raided,” said Sio, visibly emotional as he spoke, voice cracking at times and needing to wipe his eyes occasionally with a handkerchief.

“In the early hours of the morning, etched into my memory is my father being helpless.

“We had bought the home two years prior, to have someone knocking on the door in the early hours, flashlight in your face, disrespecting the owner of the home, with an Alsatian dog frothing at the mouth wanting to come in without any respect for the people living in there.

“It is quite traumatising. I asked my family on Sunday about it, my sister said she never wants to think about it.

“That is just my family, those stories are replicated across Pacific communities.”

Sio’s father, now 82, was leader at the Samoan Catholic parish in Ōtara and he and elders at the time with worked with a palagi priest to advocate against the dawn raids, he said.

Sio recounted his father did have nephews living in the garage, “some legitimate, some with their visas expired”, including one who would go on to be the father of All Blacks legend Jerome Kaino.

Sio said it needed to be remembered though why Pacific peoples came to New Zealand in the first place.

“We felt as a community we were invited to come to New Zealand. We responded to the call to fill the labour workforce that was needed, in the same way they responded to the call for soldiers in 1914.

“We were coming to the aid of a country when they needed us, and when they decided they no longer needed us they turned on us.

“Trust was broken. First and foremost the apology is about rebuilding trust for the next generation.”

Sio said he was feeling “quite emotional” about the apology.

“I don’t think there is any Pacific family who was not affected by the dawn raids.

“I do not want my children, any nieces or nephews to be shackled by that pain, to be angry about it. We need them to look forward as Pacific peoples in Aotearoa.”

The dawn raids began in 1974 when the then Labour government, faced with an economic downturn, clamped down on people overstaying their working visas.

Samoans and Tongans – welcomed into New Zealand with open arms in the 1950s and 60s to relieve a huge labour shortage – became the scapegoats of rising unemployment, and were the main targets.

Police with dogs would burst into homes at dawn across the country; Pacific people were randomly stopped in the street.

The election of a National government at the end of 1975 was followed by a fresh wave of raids against Pacific Island communities.

Opposition, led by Pasifika community groups including the Polynesian Panthers, grew slowly and by 1977 immigration procedures were changed.

In announcing the apology, to take place next week, Ardern said the raids were “routinely severe, with demeaning verbal and physical treatment”, and racially targeted Pasifika.

They were accompanied by racist checks in the streets of Pasifika and other people of colour, including Māori.

Ardern said police “racially exploited” a power they had to demand passports or visas from people at random, and told people who “didn’t look like they came from New Zealand” to carry a passport at all times, which was unacceptable”.

Sio said while the dawn raids took place almost 50 years ago the legacy of the era lived on, “etched in memories and oral histories of Pacific communities”.

“Many directly affected continue to struggle with the emotional harm and experience PTSD.”

There was a moral imperative to acknowledge those actions were wrong and the time was right given widespread public support, Sio said.

“It was unacceptable under the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, and absolutely intolerable within today’s human rights protections.

He said the apology was an opportunity for reconciliation for those impacted and to help youth stand up with “confidence and pride”.

“I am hopeful that the apology will affirm New Zealand as a country where every person irrespective of their colour, gender, sexual orientation or religious beliefs should be treated with dignity and respect.”

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