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Samoan community expected at Parliament to support member’s citizenship bill to reverse ‘historical wrong’

Vaimoana Mase and Mary Afemata, Te Rito Journalism cadet

Members of the Samoan community are expected to turn up to Parliament tonight, in support of the first reading of a private member’s bill that could see a decades-old law reversed.

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Green Party MP Teanau Tuiono’s has spent the last two years promoting his bill to remove the Citizenship [Western Samoa] Act 1982 - an Act many deem to be a historic wrong against Samoans, when it came into effect.

“At the heart of this bill is fairness,” Tuiono says.

“What you have is a group of New Zealand citizens - these people were New Zealand citizens - then that citizenship was recognised by the highest court of the land, the Privy Council, and then the Government unilaterally came along and took away their citizenship.

“That’s just outrageous. No government should be allowed to take any group of citizens - take their citizenship off them. It’s about addressing that issue.”

Falema’i Lesā: A young Samoan woman’s fight

New Zealand citizenship was not established until January 1, 1949. Before that, people living here were considered to be British subjects. And before then Western Samoa became independent in 1962, the island nation had been under New Zealand administration.

Fast-forward to the 1970s, a young Samoan woman - Falema’i Lesā - was among the many Pacific Islanders who moved to New Zealand in the hopes of a better future.

It was also the era of what became known as the Dawn Raids, which saw police raiding homes in the early hours of the morning in a bid to find and deport people who had overstayed their temporary visas.

Despite many overstayers being from Europe and North America, the Pasifika community bore the brunt.

Lesā was among those taken in by authorities and ordered to be deported back to Samoa.

However, the young woman fought for her right to stay - taking her case to court and arguing that she was, in fact, a New Zealand citizen by birthright, having been born in Samoa when the country was under New Zealand control and therefore a British subject.

‘It’s about addressing a historical wrong’

In July 1982, the Privy Council agreed with Lesā and ruled that all Western Samoans born between 1924 and 1948 were British subjects and that they and their descendants had also become NZ citizens when everyone else did.

Just over 100,000 Samoans became citizens overnight as a result.

However, then Prime Minister Robert Muldoon and the National Party - with the help of the Labour Party - passed a quick law overruling the Privy Council’s decision and in September that year, the Citizenship [Western Samoa] Act came into effect.

The new Act meant that only those Samoans who were in New Zealand that day - including Lesā, who is named in the Act - were granted citizenship.

Tuiono, who is the Green Party’s Pacific Peoples spokesman, acknowledged that to many people, that was an anti-Pacific and racist law.

The bill will not get the backing of the National Party, with Prime Minister Christopher Luxon telling 531PI:

“It wouldn’t be a great idea because I can tell you what’s going to happen…there’ll be mass migration out of the Pacific.”

Tuiono rejected that reason; saying his bill had purposely been structured to not allow that. If it gets through, it would allow a direct pathway for citizenship for those Samoans still alive.

There are about 3000 people affected, he said, with the youngest aged 75 years old.

“[This] points to setting up citizenship by grant for those elders. It doesn’t flow down to descendants.

“This bill is not about those immigration settings - it’s about addressing a historical wrong and providing at least something for those elders that are still with us.”

Samoa’s High Commissioner in Wellington, Afamasaga Fa’amatalaupu Toleafoa, said Tuiono had been in touch with his office.

However, it was made clear to the MP that as diplomats, they could not participate in anything political or partisan politics, he said.

“There is a special relationship,” he said of New Zealand and Samoa.

Afamasaga acknowledged his connection to the issue, having been born during the time in question and also remembering the Lesā case.

“I remember very well how New Zealand wiped the decision by the Privy Council by passing a law which nullified it in the first place.

“But they came up with an agreement, which they got our government to sign. It was an agreement, to my knowledge, [that] became an annex to the Treaty of Friendship (between Samoa and NZ).”

The Labour Party and Te Pāti Māori have confirmed their support of the bill, as well as the Greens.

Tuiono needs 63 votes to get the bill over the line tonight and through to the select committee process, which would then allow for public submissions offering support - something many within the Samoan community have reached out to him already, he said.

“We can’t go back in time…but we can take that statute off the books and then provide a pathway by citizenship for those elders that are still with us.”

Hero Image: The Green Party's Pacific Peoples spokesman, Teanau Tuiono, (centre) will present his member's bill at its first reading tonight. Photo / NZ Herald

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