Pioneering protester who fought for Samoans' right to New Zealand citizenship

One of Samoa's greatest advocates in modern times is a woman whose name is also synonymous with advocacy in New Zealand's own history books.

In the 1970s, Falema'i Lesā was among the many Pacific Islanders living in the land of milk and honey.

But it was an era that became known for the infamous dawn raids; introduced in a bid to find and deport people who had overstayed their temporary visas.

Police with dogs raided homes in the early hours looking for overstayers.


Lesā was among those taken in, in 1976, convicted as an overstayer and ordered to be deported back to Samoa.

What lawmakers did not expect was a young woman's determination to fight to stay.

She sought legal advice and took her case to court in a bid to appeal her conviction. She argued that she was, in fact, a New Zealand citizen by birthright.

New Zealand citizenship came into effect on January 1, 1949. Before this, people born here were British subjects.

Samoa had previously been under New Zealand administration and Lesā's argument was that those born in Samoa then were also British subjects.

The case ended up at the Privy Council in England.

In July 1982, the Privy Council ruled that all Western Samoans born between 1924 and 1948 were British subjects and that in 1949 they and their descendants had become citizens of New Zealand.

Overnight, an estimated 100,000 Samoans had become citizens.


Lesā's victory was short-lived, however, when Prime Minister Robert Muldoon and the National Government, with the help of the Labour Party, passed a quick law overruling the decision.

On September 14, 1982, the Citizenship (Western Samoa) Act came into effect, granting NZ citizenship only to those Samoans who were in New Zealand that day.

Lesā was specifically named in the Act, as a New Zealand citizen, which remains law today.