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  • Michael Roman

A dawn raids' legacy

During the 1970s New Zealand police raided houses of Pacific Islanders they believed had overstayed their visas or work permits. Mass deportations followed these early morning raids, instilling fear in large segments of the New Zealand population.


Those who did not arrive through an employment sponsor came through visitor visas, educational opportunities, or marriage to New Zealand citizens. These cases were typically much more complicated.


My story began when I resigned from my job in Kiribati. I heard people were finding work in New Zealand, and this got me thinking about leaving Kiribati, for my and my children’s future; they would have better education and opportunities in New Zealand, I thought. When I came, only Maibibi and Matarena were here. The PAC had just begun, but we were already here and ineligible to register through that scheme. Today you can, but not back then.
My son was in primary school then, and I had ten years of work experience in a senior secondary school. We struggled as I looked for jobs that offered work permits. I asked the principal of my son’s school if there were a position to support other island students. They did not have any positions but thought I could help and hired me as a teacher’s aide. The position did not impact my immigration status, but the principal was a good woman who helped me as much as she could. I hired an immigration consultant who cost a lot of money. I probably paid too much, but I didn’t care, I wanted to stay in New Zealand. I was lucky, and soon received job offer that came with access to a work permit which allowed family reunification. I brought over my other children and enrolled them in school. Everything was working out, until I lost the position. When I stopped working, my permit became invalid, and we were no longer authorized to live in New Zealand.
We became over-stayers. I didn’t like it, but it’s true. I left and went back to Kiribati only to return and start again. Out of desperation to stay, I did this twice, but I couldn’t afford it the third time. After several years of being in New Zealand, a small Kiribati community, which we relied on for our survival, formed in Hamilton.
I moved to Hamilton because of this. I didn’t like the crowded conditions we were living in, and Hamilton was smaller, quieter, and calmer. We stayed with other Kiribati families for one year, hiding while trying to attain permanent residency. Scared to leave the house we were afraid of being caught and deported. As an overstayer, I couldn’t drive, shop, or even see a doctor without fear of being deported. My confidence to do anything was gone, and the house became my prison.
After one year, when permanent residency was granted, we got our freedom. The children were so happy. We moved to a different house, burdens were lifted, employment was easy, and life was better. Before permanent residency, I had to do whatever I could to gain employment. Employers would ask if I had a work permit, and I would say, yes. I didn’t want to say that, but we needed money to pay the rent, buy food, and fill the car with petrol to take the kids to school. Then, my son drove since he was on a student permit. In those times, the church helped a lot. They knew we were in trouble and helped with donated food, money and clothes.
New lives in New Zealand brought forth a new importance, money. In all cases, it substituted for land and family. Food, childcare, housing, utilities, and transportation became commodities; and in the absence of everything, there was money.

"Dawn Raids" New Zealand Pataka Art Museum

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©2020 by Michael Roman