Depriving Samoans of immigration and citizenship rights

by Philip Ferguson

Among those hardest hit by NZ’s immigration restrictions and discrimination at the point of entry have been Samoans.  Indeed, Samoans faced a double-whammy, as 100,000 of them were stripped of NZ citizenship rights by the NZ Citizenship (Western Samoa) Act of 1982.  This legislation, introduced by Muldoon’s National Party government, was part of a miserable 70-year record of NZ dealings with the Samoan people. Although it was vigorously protested against at the time, and later – for instance, in late March 2003, thousands of Samoans protested in Wellington, Christchurch and in Samoa itself, calling for its repeal – this legislation remains in force.  The Samoans (and their descendants) who lost citizenship rights have faced hostile Labour and National governments alike.

NZ had invaded Samoa in 1914 and was the colonial power there for the next five decades.  Just after WW1, the NZ administration bore responsibility for an influenza epidemic that wiped out a quarter of the population.  The NZ government then viciously suppressed the mass movement for Samoan independence, including gunning down unarmed independence protesters in 1929 (see for an account of NZ rule in Samoa).

After independence, NZ continued to act as lord and master of Samoa and other former NZ-ruled countries in the Pacific.  For instance, in the 1970s NZ governments masqueraded as generous aid donors to the Pacific.  Yet, at that very same time, for every dollar of aid the Pacific countries of the Commonwealth received from New Zealand, they lost $3.74 in trade with this country.  Most of the NZ aid was actually spent on NZ commodities, services and personnel.  Moreover, it had little impact on expanding Pacific island exports to NZ.  The 1970s also saw mass raids on Pacific Island ‘overstayers’ in NZ and large-scale deportations.

In 2002 Helen Clark apologised to Samoans for the crimes committed against them under NZ colonial rule and for the raids of the 1970s.  In response to the 2003 round of marches for the re-establishment of Samoans’ citizenship rights, Clark and her Ethnic Affairs minister, Chris Carter, emphasised how much they “value” the Samoan contribution to NZ society and the Labour Party.  However, they claimed, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since 1982 and nothing could be done to reverse that legislation!

Labour’s stance should come as no surprise.  Despite masquerading as ‘friends’ of ‘ethnic communities’, Labour’s actual record, from the time it was founded, is one of campaigning for racist immigration policies when out of office and implementing them when in office.

Labour was founded in 1916 and very quickly began campaigning for the ‘White New Zealand’ immigration policy which was being developed at the time by the Liberal and Reform parties.  Labour MPs urged unions to adopt ‘White New Zealand’ policies and, in the parliamentary debates over the 1920 Immigration Restriction Act, Labour MP after Labour MP rose to his feet to declare in favour of a ‘White New Zealand’ and for the rigid restriction of immigration into New Zealand by people whose skin was not white.

In those days it was primarily Asians, especially Chinese, whom the ‘socialist’ Labour Party and the more openly capitalist parties wanted to keep out.

By the 1970s, Labour had shed most of its socialist rhetoric and pretences, so its assault on migrants with the ‘wrong’ skin colour went hand-in-hand with its attacks on unions and on the working class more generally.  In March 1974, the Labour government of Norm Kirk and Bill Rowling began a crackdown on Pacific Islanders, with dawn raids on Tongan homes in Auckland.

Pacific Island workers had been needed to meet the problems of a labour shortage during the economic expansion of the post-WW2 boom, which lasted until the early 1970s.  Before WW2 there were only 7,000 Pacific Islanders in NZ, but this rose to 40,000 by 1971 and continued to rise rapidly.

Since the controls over Pacific immigration had remained quite tight at the formal level, even during the 1960s, Pacific Islanders often came on visitors’ permits and then ‘overstayed’, getting work.  During the boom, employers and the government turned a blind eye to this, as they needed cheap labour.  Nevertheless, immigration from the Pacific never rose above 15 percent of total immigration in any year.

The end of the economic boom period and the onset of recession meant the NZ ruling class now turned to shutting off working class immigration, especially from the Pacific.  Labour’s dawn raids established in the public mind that Pacific Islanders were a ‘problem’ and thus paved the way for the more extreme measures of Muldoon’s National Party, which swept to power in November 1975 on a platform of scapegoating unions, Pacific Islanders and solo mothers for capitalism’s slide into recession.

The new government called on “overstayers” to register with the Labour Department during an “amnesty”.  Half of those who did were then deported.  Not satisfied with this, the government then began large-scale random checks on the streets of anyone who looked a bit on the brown side, as well as instituting new rounds of dawn raids.  Thousand more Pacific Island workers then faced deportation.

Between 1977 and 1982 more Pacific Islanders left New Zealand than entered.  However the Pacific Island section of the NZ population was still over 100,000 and now the government faced a serious challenge to its racist immigration policies.

Falema’i Lesa, a Samoan woman who had been convicted as an ‘overstayer’ and deported in 1979, took a case to the Privy Council in London.  Her case was based on the fact that the 1949 NZ Citizenship Act had defined Western Samoans born before January 1, 1949 as NZ citizens.  The children of fathers born there were also covered.  On July 19, 1982 the Privy Council declared its ruling, upholding Lesa’s appeal.  Basically, it found that successive NZ governments, Labour and National, had been acting illegally in expelling Samoans and in generally denying them the citizenship rights they were entitled to under the 1949 legislation.

At the time of the Council’s ruling there were over 200 Samoans before the courts in New Zealand, facing deportation as ‘overstayers’.  Two days after the ruling, the cruelty of the anti-Pacific Islander immigration policies was exposed yet again.  Tongan Suleiti Pese was separated from her children, including a two-month-old baby she was breast-feeding, jailed and deported from NZ.

The NZ government responded to the ruling by imposing a near-blanket ban on visas to NZ from Samoa, while new legislation was prepared to strip away the Samoans’ citizenship rights in this country.  On August 22, Muldoon and the Western Samoa government signed a new deal in Apia.  In exchange for some improvement in the position of about 40,000 Samoans in NZ, the citizenship rights of 100,000 Samoans would be signed away.  The Western Samoan government was told they either accept the terms or face the consequences.

Given the blatantly racist nature of the Muldoon stance, and the fact that Samoans, like other Pacific Islanders, were overwhelmingly Labour supporters, one might have expected at least some criticism, even if fairly tame, from the Labour Party.  On the contrary, however, Labour actually sent its deputy-leader, the saintly David Lange, on the plane to Apia with Muldoon to help back up his blackmail of the Samoan government.  While people took to the streets in Western Samoa and New Zealand in protest against the agreement – for instance, 8,000 people marched in Apia on August 30, Lange attacked the Privy Council ruling as a “dream” and praised the “conciliatory” stance of Muldoon.  When Samoans protested Labour’s support for Muldoon they were accused of “bigotry” by Labour leaders!

Muldoon introduced new legislation on August 24, 1982, taking away the citizenship of 100,000 Samoans – the 1982 NZ Citizenship (Western Samoa) bill.  The bill was rushed through – for instance only two days notice was given for preparing submissions to the select committee.

Among those speaking out against the bill at the time was Helen Clark, then a new Labour MP.  She told a public meeting in Auckland on September 4 that she would “oppose the Bill when it comes back to parliament, and I will be doing everything I can to persuade others to do the same.”  Most Labour MPs, however, voted for the new racist legislation.

Two decades on, Helen Clark became prime minister and in charge of governing the country in the interests of big business.  Unlike in 1982, she was now in a position to repeal this legislation.  Instead of this, she and Chris Carter declared it would stay in place.  If anything, this made them worse than Muldoon, who was at least honest in his hostility to Samoans and other Pacific Islanders.

Clark’s stance on this issue also points up her dishonesty in relation to the refugees issue.  She was able to score some cheap brownie points by taking some refugees that the Howard government was keeping out of Australia.  However, she did this by including them in the quota NZ had already agreed to take – in other words, by excluding other refugees waiting to get into NZ.  In the Samoan case, however, it is less easy to cover up the blatant and discriminatory nature of exclusion.

It is also important to point out here that the discrimination is not only, or even necessarily primarily, because the Samoans are brown, but because they are poor.  Since the market reforms of the 1980s, NZ immigration controls have become more based on wealth than skin colour.

It is in the interests of all workers to oppose these kinds of immigration controls.  The more ruling classes can control the movement of labour and divide workers along national, ethnic or ‘race’ lines, the weaker all workers are.  For instance, by turning Pacific and other immigration off and on, depending on the state of capitalism, the ruling class can control wages and conditions for workers as a whole.  The free movement of workers, along with the organisation of workers from all backgrounds into militant, political unions, on the other hand, unites us on a level where we can fight effectively for the best conditions to be extended to all workers.  It puts workers in a stronger position to fight against the system itself – for one thing it prevents the system from diverting attention away from itself through scapegoating Pacific Island or other migrant workers for the problems caused by capitalism.

The 1982 Act should be repealed, but all capitalist immigration controls need to be opposed too.  Workers need freedom of movement, and there needs to be solidarity between workers here and workers abroad, especially those oppressed by imperialism.  Refugees and migrant workers who come to New Zealand should all be able to enjoy the rights of citizens, whether they come from Samoa, Britain, Africa, Latin America, Asia or anywhere else.

See also: Immigration controls – not in workers’ interests and Samoa: what NZ did

For an account of the impact on Samoans in New Zealand, there are a series of interviews at Elijah Tauamiti’s blog, here.