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The dawn raids: causes, impacts and legacy

Page 1 – Introduction

Pamphlet calling for the end of police dawn raids on overstayers, 1976
Pamphlet calling for the end of police dawn raids on overstayers, 1976 (ATL, 94-106-19/07-02/03)

Ko te haeata
Emergent light spreading across the sky
Making way for day.

On 25 April, Anzac Day, thousands of people around the country gather at dawn to commemorate those lost in war. These ‘dawn services’ are accorded special significance. They transform what is generally a time of slumber into a time to remember, to recall sacrifice, to consider present-day conflict, and to make pledges for peace.

But for some members of our Pasifika community, dawn relates to another significant history, albeit a less commemorated and less remembered part of our history – the Dawn Raids of 1974–76. Dr Melani Anae describes these raids as ‘the most blatantly racist attack on Pacific peoples by the New Zealand government in New Zealand’s history’. The story of the dawn raids and the emergence of the Polynesian Panthers connect with themes such as identity and nationhood. The raids shed light on a confluence of forces, including immigration law, police power, the role of the media and racism.

What caused these raids and what impact did they have on Pacific Island communities? How did groups and individuals respond to the raids, and what is the legacy of this history?

Historical context

The dawn raids began in the 1970s in Auckland. They represent a low point in the relationship between the government and the Pacific community. It was a time when the New Zealand Police was instructed by the government to enter homes and/or stop people on the street and ask for permits, visas, passports – anything that proved a person’s right to be in the country. This blunt instrument was applied almost exclusively to Pacific Islanders, even though during the 1970s and into the 1980s the bulk of overstayers (individuals who remained in New Zealand after the expiry of their visas) were from Europe or North America.

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NZ On Screen

Dawn Raids documentary (2005)

The history of discrimination towards Pacific people can be traced back to New Zealand’s rule over several Pacific islands. Lord Ranfurly’s claim that ‘No land has ever been the worse for having the British flag hoisted over it’ rings hollow in the face of the evidence. Historian Mary Boyd describes New Zealand’s early 20th-century administration of Pacific territories by a ‘long line of paternalistic but often misguided soldier-administrators with [an] underlying belief in the racial superiority of the Anglo-Saxons’. Damon Salesa agrees that the most appropriate single term for New Zealand’s rule in the Pacific is ‘paternalism’.

In the 1860s Pacific Islanders began arriving in Aotearoa New Zealand to work as labourers. This vanguard was singled out by the press. On 24 May 1870, the Daily Southern Cross declared: ‘[W]e object to “cheap labour” of this description’. On 31 May 1870, an article in the Evening Post encapsulated racist attitudes towards Pacific Islanders, Chinese and Māori:

Bad as the Chinese are, the South Sea savages are worse, and any extensive importation of them would have … a most pernicious effect, even were the country solely occupied by Europeans; but, when we consider what a large native population of our own we have, the evil is intensified.

Demographic change

Pacific Island immigration to Aotearoa New Zealand increased after the Second World War, with the encouragement of government and business. Pacific Island workers provided an important source of labour for expanding industries. Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese (Prime Minister of Western Samoa 1976–1982) suggested three reasons why Pacific people wanted to come to New Zealand: job opportunities, money, and most importantly their children’s education, which was viewed as the key to success in life. A proportion of wages earned in New Zealand were sent back to the Pacific, allowing some families to build new homes.

Pacific Island population of New Zealand

    • 1945 – 2159 (0.1% of the NZ population)
    • 1961 – 14,340 (0.5%)
    • 1966 – 26,271 (1.0%)
    • 1971 – 43,752 (1.5%)
    • 1981 – 93,941 (3.0%)
    • 2006 – 266,000 (6.4%)*
    • 2018 – 381,642 (7.9%)

*Of these, 49 % were second- or third-generation Islanders born in New Zealand

Sources: Sean Mallon et al. (eds), Tangata o le moana: New Zealand and the people of the Pacific (2012)/Statistics NZ

The promised land of ‘milk and honey’ was often fraught with problems and hardships. While New Zealand welcomed migrants when it needed cheap labour, it was quick to send them back home once the need was met or when problems arose. Kolokesa Māhina-Tuia describes the relationship between New Zealand and the wider Pacific throughout the 20th century as ‘one of unequal, and often fickle, interdependency’.

An increase in population meant that during the 1960s and 1970s a more stable and organised Pacific community was established in Aotearoa. ‘By the mid-1960s Pacific people comprised 64 percent of the population of suburbs such as Arch Hill in Auckland.’ The inner-city Auckland suburbs of Grey Lynn, Ponsonby and Herne Bay had significant Pacific populations. This demographic concentration allowed for the creation of diverse religious, commercial, and social support networks, including the first ethnic Pacific church in New Zealand – Newton Church – which became a gathering place for Pacific people living in Auckland. Pacific-language newspapers and radio programmes disseminated information to the community, and new ideas of what it meant to be ‘Pacific’ emerged.

Causes of the raids

It is through immigration policies that the philosophy of white superiority and the desire for a white-only nation can be seen.

Donna Awatere

The New Zealand economy faced two significant shocks in the early 1970s which were to have an impact on the situation of Pacific Islanders in New Zealand, especially those living in Auckland. In 1973 New Zealand’s major trading partner, the United Kingdom, joined the European Economic Community, severely impacting New Zealand’s export economy. That same year, Middle Eastern oil producers slashed production and crude oil prices soared from US$3 a barrel to nearly US$20 virtually overnight. Like most industrialised economies, New Zealand relied heavily on oil imports and suffered severe consequences. Higher petrol prices meant higher freight costs, higher costs for goods and inevitably, higher retail prices.

Unemployment was also rising, at the same time as increasing numbers of Pacific Islanders were arriving in New Zealand on visitors’ permits. Many remained in the country to work. As unemployment levels grew, these ‘overstayers’ became scapegoats for those looking for someone or something to blame for the social and economic problems facing the country. Pacific Islanders were often falsely portrayed in the media as taking New Zealanders’ jobs away from them.

Immigration notice, 1976

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, FE012416

Government immigration notice, 1976.

Melani Anae describes the social and political climate during the 1970s as one of ‘racial tension and unrest as police and immigration authorities victimised Pacific Islanders they suspected of abusing the terms of their visas.’ The Immigration Act 1964 was used to crack down on overstayers. A 1968 amendment to the Act allowed for the deportation of those who had overstayed their work permits. Section 33(a) gave police the power to ask people to produce not only a valid passport, but also a permit to enter and remain temporarily in New Zealand, as well as other evidence of identity. In 1974, the Norman Kirk-led Labour government used this Act to focus on Samoans and Tongans, who did not have free entry to New Zealand, unlike Niueans, Tokelauans and Cook Islanders, whose territories were (and still are) part of the Realm of New Zealand.

The government also approved the formation of two police taskforces to address fears about Polynesian-incited violence in Auckland’s inner-city streets. In March 1974, police and immigration officials began raiding Tongan households. Church services were also interrupted, and the raids produced a sense of shame, fear and uncertainty.

The election of a National government at the end of 1975 was followed by a fresh wave of raids against Pacific Island communities. Under the leadership of Robert Muldoon, the National Party had drawn on racist stereotypes during the election campaign. National set an immigration target of 5,000 (down from 30,000) and was accused of stoking fears about immigration in order to win power. Joris de Bres, a later Race Relations Commissioner, wrote in New Zealand Monthly Review in 1976 that National had been ‘guilty of the most grave distortions and thoroughly dishonest appeals to racism in the New Zealand population’. In the same year, the Auckland Star quoted Justice Graham Speight as saying, ‘one must have the gravest anxiety as to the placement of these unsophisticated people in an environment which they are totally unfitted to cope with.’

Commissioner of Police Ken Burnside ordered Auckland-based Superintendent A.K. Berriman to set up special squads in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland to carry out raids. The police’s powers were broad. Random checks (‘blitzes’) were carried out at any time of the day or night. Those targeted included ‘drinkers in pubs, passengers at taxi ranks, pedestrians on Auckland streets, workers in factories, New Zealand-born Polynesians, university students, Māori’. In many ways the attention given to ‘dawn raids’ was misleading – they were more widespread than that. Joris de Bres described the effects of such a broad-brush approach: ‘The figures I recall were more than one thousand people were stopped and less than twenty [overstayers] were found.’

Opposition and an end to the raids

Several factors came together to bring the dawn raids to an end. While mainstream media outlets had been used to generate negative stereotypes and amplify reports of criminal behaviour by Pacific Islanders, other articles published during the 1970s challenged government immigration policies and gave positive images of Pacific Islanders. 

Media apology

The recent apology to Māori by media company Stuff for historic racist reporting opens the possibility of an acknowledgement of racism towards Pacific people. In 2002 Prime Minister Helen Clark issued formal apologies to Samoa for ‘New Zealand’s administration of Samoa in its earlier years’ and New Zealand’s Chinese community ‘for the discrimination suffered by those subjected to the poll tax and other practices.’ Despite such apologies, racism is still an ongoing issue in New Zealand. In 2020 Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon commented that ‘racism is well and alive in some parts of people's minds.’

Melani Anae makes the point that what distinguished the 1976 raids from the 1974 raids was increasingly widespread public support for the police tactics. However, groups also defended the rights of Pacific people and opposition to the raids grew. This opposition ranged from the Polynesian Panthers to church spokesmen, Island leaders, Ngā Tamatoa and anti-racist organisations such as the Citizens Association for Racial Equality (CARE) and the Auckland Committee on Racism and Discrimination (ACORD), whose leaflet on violence and racism included these anti-racism cartoons about police harassment of Māori and Pacific Islanders. Some police officers opposed the blitzes and regretted the harm they were causing. Some groups compared the police tactics to those used in Nazi Germany, and to the policies in apartheid South Africa that controlled the movements of black and coloured South Africans by requiring them to carry passbooks.

Anae also points out that the 1976 dawn raids provoked condemnation from within the National Party as well as from the Labour opposition. Ultimately the raids became untenable – and they were also ineffectual, as the New Zealand economy continued to decline despite the deportation of illegal Pacific immigrants. In 1977 the Immigration Department changed its procedures for handling overstayers so these events would never be repeated.

While discrimination towards Pacific peoples was humiliating, Anae stresses that this time was also one of collective and radical action by groups which united to combat oppression. One group that rose to prominence in the wake of the raids was PACIFICA Inc. (Pacific Allied [Women’s] Council Inspires Faith in Ideals Concerning All), formed in 1977 to meet the needs of Pacific women. PACIFICA was one of a number of activist organisations founded after the period of tension created by the dawn raids. ‘Pacific peoples’ identity in New Zealand was on the line and a sense of unity was needed.’ Another significant group that was active in this period was the Polynesian Panthers; ‘the campaign against the Dawn Raids remains one of the most potent examples of the Polynesian Panther Party’s platform in action.’

Polynesian Panthers

The Polynesian Panther story is the story of Pacific in New Zealand, and also the story of New Zealand becoming more and more aware of its real self.

Melani Anae

The Polynesian Panthers was a socialist activist group that fought against discrimination. The Panther movement predates the dawn raids, having been founded in Auckland on 16 June 1971 by six young Pacific Islanders: Paul Dapp, Will ’Ilolahia, Vaughan Sanft, Fred Schmidt, Nooroa Teavae and Eddie Williams. The group included Samoans, Tongans, Cook Islanders, and a few Māori. Many were university students. Their headquarters was in Ponsonby, then the heart of the Auckland Pacific Island community.

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Polynesian Panthers documentary (2010)

The Polynesian Panthers’ influence grew throughout the 1970s and chapters were set up in South Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin and Sydney. They were inspired by the Black Panther Party and made direct comparisons between the oppression of African Americans in the United States and the discrimination faced by Polynesians in New Zealand. Their platform was based on freedom through self-determination. It included ending exploitation of Pacific communities and police brutality, providing decent housing, and including Pacific history in New Zealand in the education curriculum.

Polynesian Panthers poster

Hocken Library, University of Otago

Poster for Polynesian Panthers meeting in Dunedin, c. 1973.

Before and during the dawn raids, the Polynesian Panthers worked hard to end police brutality. They sought to ‘overcome racist policies which were hindering equitable access to quality education, health, housing and a variety of other social conditions.’ Their manifesto was one of revolution: ‘The revolution we openly rap about is one of total change. The revolution is one to liberate us from racism, oppression and capitalism.’ The actions they took included:

  • With the Citizens Association for Racial Equality (CARE), establishing homework centres
  • Speaking at schools and holding community meetings
  • Organising street parties and concerts for the elderly
  • Joining with the Ponsonby Peoples’ Union to set up a food cooperative
  • Organising transport to shuttle families and visitors to Paremoremo Prison, where they also had a chapter. Inmates were given support, advice and often accommodation upon their release.

Self-determination was a central principle for the Panthers. Wayne Toleafoa expresses the idea:

To many young Polynesians like myself, the only way forward for us as a migrant people was ‘self-help’. We would have to stand up for ourselves and our people, and not wait for others to do it for us… The Panthers provided the platform for us to do just that.

The spirit of the Panthers lives on in those who were part of the movement (‘Once a Panther always a Panther’). Melani Anae credits the group with empowering her and framing her values, especially an emphasis on education ‘as the tool that will lead us out of oppression and darkness and into the light.’ The Fale Pasifika at the University of Auckland, opened in 2004, stands as a testament to the presence of Pacific culture, language and learning at a tertiary level. Anae offers the following conclusion:

The Dawn Raids and the Panthers call to revolution, the form of the exposure and annihilation of all forms of oppression, the focus on education, working collaboratively for positive outcomes and mana Pasifika – the celebration of Pacific identities and ethnicities, survives as a lasting vision of empowerment.

Comparisons can be drawn between the Polynesian Panthers and Ngā Tamatoa, as well as other global examples of activism that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Both the Panthers and Ngā Tamatoa sought to enhance the mana (political, social and legal rights) of their people. On issues like the dawn raids and the 1975 Land March they stood shoulder to shoulder. These groups exposed and challenged the New Zealand myth of ‘one nation, one people’ and the country’s attendant claim to have the ‘best race relations in the world’.

Impacts and legacy

The dawn raids were shameful.

Helen Clark, Prime Minister of New Zealand, 1999–2008

The dawn raids are a significant historical period in the history of Aotearoa New Zealand. Damon Salesa argues that the urban setting for such discrimination was a unique feature of the dawn raids:

The draconian mid-1970s immigration “crackdown” was in keeping with the ways the New Zealand state had long dealt with Polynesians in the colonial hinterlands, but deploying such techniques in urban and suburban areas was unprecedented.

Unity and division are key themes that emerge in this history. The raids ‘touched the core of many Polynesian people and questioned their place in New Zealand’. Polynesian Panther Wayne Toleafoa believes the raids were ‘another example of the poor quality of the relationship between Pākehā and Pacific Islanders, at that time.’ Very few Pākehā spoke out against what was happening and a sense of mistrust developed. The raids illustrated the power of the state and how that power could be used to discriminate against minority groups.

There were also divisions within the Pacific community. The stigma of overstaying tested the resolve of Pacific people, with some who were in New Zealand legally expressing their frustration with those who were overstaying by dobbing in their own relatives. Oscar Kightley’s play Dawn raids and Pauline Vaeluaga Smith’s novel Dawn raid touches on the complexity of this time and the split that occasionally occurred in the Pacific community. There are multiple perspectives, some of them filtered through generational attitudes. Older Pacific parents tended to be more conservative and were not keen on their teenage children pushing back against discrimination or the authorities. This period saw shifts not only in Aotearoa New Zealand’s national identity, but also in Pacific identities and what it meant to be a New Zealand-born Pacific person. Albert Wendt’s novel, Sons for the return home, explores this changing sense of identity. So does Melani Anae’s verse:

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

Melissa Matutina William’s book, Panguru and the city, is helpful when looking at this period. Her analysis, which explores Māori migration from rural Northland to Auckland, makes sense of the trauma and hardship associated with leaving one home and building another – ka mate i kāinga tahi, ka ora i kāinga rua. Her work challenges a lot of the history that has been written about Māori urbanisation in the 20th century. All too often, she argues, this history unfolds as a tragedy of cultural breakdown, with Māori being rendered faceless and voiceless. But first interpretations are not facts, and stories develop. New interpretations enrich the historiography and allow us to see anew. Her history is concerned with the agency and humanity of Panguru Māori. Using oral testimony, Williams tells a story that is personal and political, a story that highlights connections and hope despite discrimination and oppression. Melani Anae’s contribution to the history of the Polynesian Panthers and the dawn raids similarly draws on personal stories to tell the history from within, allowing us to see anew.

YouTube: 387 Film Distribution

Trailer for Oscar Kightley’s 2021 documentary, Dawn Raid

Oscar Kightley’s 2021 documentary, Dawn Raid, also reveals a story of hope and pride, albeit tinged with difficulty and sadness. The film covers the meteoric rise of the entertainment label Dawn Raid, co-founded by Danny ‘Brotha D’ Leaosavai’i and Andy Murnane. It documents how young Pacific New Zealanders found a voice through hip hop music. Brotha D explained that the use of the term Dawn Raid was a conscious attempt to ‘tell a positive story from where we’re from … to flip to the positive... From something that was painful in the past and we want to turn it around.’ Prior to the founding of Dawn Raid Entertainment, King Kapisi created a clothing label called Overstayer. In both cases, the use of terms used to discriminate against Pacific people was a conscious political act.

Further information

This web feature was written by Ricky Prebble and produced by the NZHistory team



  • Melani Anae, The platform: the radical legacy of the Polynesian Panthers, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 2020
  • Melani Anae, with Lautofa (Ta) Iuli and Leilani Tamu (eds), Polynesian Panthers: Pacific protest and affirmative action in Aotearoa New Zealand 1971–1981, Huia Publishers, Wellington, 2015
  • Sharon Alice Liava’a, ‘Dawn raids: when Pacific Islanders were forced to go “home”’, dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the degree of Master of Arts in History, University of Auckland, 1998
  • Sean Mallon, Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai and Damon Salesa (eds), Tangata o le moana: New Zealand and the people of the Pacific, Te Papa Press, Wellington, 2012
  • Pauline (Vaeluaga) Smith, Dawn raid, Scholastic New Zealand, 2018
  • Albert Wendt, Sons for the return home, Longman Paul, Auckland, 1973
How to cite this page

The dawn raids: causes, impacts and legacy, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated