Pōuri: The Legacy of the Dawn Raids on New Zealand, Tonga, and Samoa

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The title of this post, Pōuri, translates in Maori as “to be dark, sad, disheartened, mournful, sorry, remorseful.”

I’ve always been fascinated with Maori culture, the culture of New Zealand’s indigenous people. While I’ve consumed some Maori film and literature, there is always so much more to learn.

This post discusses the “Dawn Raids” and the role the New Zealand government played in the dark chapter of Maori History.

What Were the “Dawn Raids?”

The Dawn Raids were a series of targeted immigration raids that usually took place early in the morning between 1974 and 1976.

Originally implemented under the government of Norman Kirk (Labour) and continued under the government of Rob Muldoon (National), the Dawn Raids sought to crack down on those who overstayed their work permits.

Over the decades prior to the Dawn Raids, New Zealand experienced a large influx of low-skilled workers immigrating from across Polynesia. Their labor would help New Zealand’s economy grow more robustly while allowing them to send money back to their families.

Polynesian workers were targeted at dawn before they were able to get to their places of work. This time of day made them the most vulnerable in the eyes of the police.

“Very much was made of the word ‘dawn raids’. It’s very emotive. Just remember — these young fellas were working in the freezing works, heading off to work at five and six in the morning. They were on long shifts and so on, and that was the only time you could get them.”

Former Police Task Force Commander Ross Dallow

Following economic downturns in the 1970s, unemployment levels, as well as prices, increased throughout New Zealand. With the United Kingdom emphasizing trade with Europe and with oil production being reduced in the Middle East, New Zealand faced difficult economic times.

The United Kindom’s joining of the European Economic Community shifted economic focus away from New Zealand.

The Polynesians who had overstayed their work visas were targeted and used as scapegoats for New Zealand’s economic hardship, leading to the Dawn Raids on their communities.

Dawn Raids Begin

Police raided the homes of Polynesian families early in the morning, primarily focusing on Samoans and Tongans, whose territories fell outside of New Zealand’s association of states.

“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… It is quite traumatising.”

New Zealand’s minister for Pacific Peoples, Aupito William Sio

Officers armed with batons and dogs raided homes, public streets, and even churches.

While the raids were humiliating and bold, they were ineffective. Despite the deportation of Polynesian immigrants, New Zealand’s economy remained in decline.

The legacy of the Dawn Raids is the re-invigorated spirit of the Maori people and the preservation of their culture. Reckoning with this dark past occurred, and the Maori hope that the Dawn Raids can serve as a lesson that can prevent future atrocities like it.

“We’re not talking about compensation, we’re working for something that’s restorative and healing, and future-proof. We want to see the compulsory teaching of the Dawn Raids and racism in our educational syllabus.”

Reverend Alec Toleafoa, member of the Polynesian Panther Party

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern released a public apology for the New Zealand government’s role in the Dawn Raids in August 2021.

The Princess of Tonga attended Ardern’s apology and shed tears over the role that the Dawn Raids had on Tongan people.

“I am very grateful for your Government for making the right decision to apologise to right the extreme, inhumane, racist and unjust treatment specifically against my community in the dawn raids era.”

Tongan Princess Mele Siu’ilikutapu
Princess Mele Siu’ilikutapu


I’ll end this post with a section of a poem from Dr. Melani Anae at the University of Auckland who discussed her personal experiences in the Dawn Raids. Dr. Anae is also a member of the Polynesian Panther Party (PPP).

It captures the feelings and experiences of Polynesians at the time who lived in New Zealand, straddling the line between native and foreigner, indigenous and immigrant.

I am a Samoan – but not a Samoan
To my aiga [family] in Samoa, I am a palagi [foreigner]
I am a New Zealander – but not a New Zealander
To New Zealanders, I am a bloody coconut, at worst,
A Pacific Islander, at best


  1. Dawn Raids, Television (Full Length) 2005, NZ On Screen Iwi Whitiahua
  2. The dawn raids: causes, impacts and legacy, New Zealand History
  3. Tongan princess in tears as she accepts formal dawn raids apology. 1 news
  4. New Zealand apologises for 1970s ‘Dawn Raids’, Al Jazeera
  5. New Zealand’s PM Ardern apologises for 1970s immigration raids on Pacific community, Reuters
  6. New Zealand Dawn Raids: Jacinda Ardern formally apologises, BBC
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6 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Wow! Fascinating history I didn’t know about. Isn’t it interesting how societies always try to find a scapegoat for their problems.

    1. eurobrat,

      I’m glad we both got to learn about this history together. The research process was quite interesting, and there was lots to learn!


  2. For years successive UK Governments had tried to gain entry to the elite membership European Union Club. General de Gaulle who had felt slighted by the British during the war, kept us out. On his death we were able to join what was then the Common Market. From just trading with ‘friends’ but retaining links with trade in the Commonwealth, we ended up with membership in a political entity that dictated who we would/could trade with. This was not good as far as some countries were concerned.
    The UK is conducting dawn raids still, and deporting people which includes some people who have never lived in the country they’re being deported to and have no family links there. Governments are not noted for thinking before they act. Time they did.

    1. David,

      Thanks for sharing about the United Kingdom and its entrance into the EEC. That fact about de Gaulle is interesting. It’s a nugget I’ll remember for later on.


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