Migration from 1950s
The first significant wave of migrants from the Pacific Islands began in the late 1950s. As the New Zealand manufacturing sector expanded, employers turned to the Pacific for unskilled and semi-skilled workers. Migrants from Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau arrived as New Zealand citizens. Technically, Samoans and Tongans needed approval to live and work in New Zealand. However, the government overlooked this requirement during the 1960s.
The economic impact of the 1973 oil crisis and growing unemployment provoked a backlash against these recent arrivals. Populist opinion saw them as taking the jobs of New Zealanders. Pacific Islanders were blamed for the deterioration of inner-city suburbs, and for law and order problems. Under the 1972–75 Labour government, police and immigration officials sought to identify and deport those who had overstayed their work permits. Raids on the homes of alleged overstayers – usually at dawn, to catch people before they woke – began in 1974.
In the 1975 general election campaign, a National Party cartoon depicted Pacific migrants as a threat to New Zealand. The new National government continued to authorise random street checks and dawn raids to identify overstayers. Pacific migrants, including those who were New Zealand citizens, were described by politicians and the media as unwelcome.
In 1982, the Privy Council in London ruled that a Western Samoan, Falema’i Lesa, who was being prosecuted for being an overstayer, was a natural-born British subject and therefore a New Zealand citizen. This meant that most of Western Samoa’s population qualified as New Zealand citizens. The response was the Citizenship (Western Samoa) Act 1982, which had the effect of overturning the ruling. The act confirmed negative attitudes towards Samoans.
Antagonism towards Pacific peoples continued into the 1980s. In 1986, 86% of those prosecuted for overstaying were Pacific people, although only a third of all overstayers were from the Pacific – the majority were from Europe or North America.
Not an underclass
In May 2008 a report appeared in a Wellington newspaper quoting an academic who claimed that Pacific Islanders were an underclass and a drain on the economy. Pacific people were outraged. The Race Relations Commissioner reviewed the matter and decided that the claims were based on out-of-date data; trends were positive in many areas.
Public attitudes changed in the 1990s, by when most Pacific people in New Zealand were New Zealand-born and they were beginning to have a noticeable impact on public life. In the early 21st century, with more than a quarter of a million people of Pacific ethnicity in New Zealand, levels of public intolerance were low. After the 2020 election, 11 members of Parliament identified as Pasifika (9%, compared to 3% in 1996).
A survey in 2009 found that 58% of respondents believed there was some discrimination against Pacific peoples, but only 5% believed they were the group most discriminated against.