Q&A | Alesha Niuapu on addressing immigration myths with REA

Immigration has been a key and contentious policy issue in the lead-up to New Zealand’s general election on September 23, as it has been in many recent election campaigns internationally. Racial Equity Aotearoa (REA) are a grassroots movement working to identify and challenge problematic “immigration myths”, as well as ways to strengthen connections between tangata whenua (Māori) and tangata tiriti (non-Māori). Evelyn spoke to one of REA’s longest-standing members, Alesha Niuapu to find out more.

What was the catalyst for Racial Equity Aotearoa (REA) forming? Who is part of the group, and what are your collective goals?
REA is a grassroots movement committed to indigenous self-determination and to the dismantling of systemic racism in Aotearoa New Zealand. Around early 2016 there was this story in the New Zealand media in which two Māori men were thrown in jail for stealing some trout to feed their families. I remember feeling really pissed off, because around the same time a group of Pākehā young men got a slap on the wrist for stealing $80,000 of private property. I’ve always grown up seeing and knowing the outright racism shown to my people when confronted with the justice system and the media. I guess I just had enough of that dynamic, that has been such a norm in New Zealand society.

Around the middle of 2016 my husband Aaryn and I had gone to this performance called ‘WHITE/Other’ that looked at racism and otherness. That night of the performance we met other university students and recent graduates, that seemed to be on the same buzz as us at that point in time – the ‘let’s do something about racism’ buzz. It was an exciting moment meeting these politically critical people, already doing great work in their own communities, who I would consider my really close friends today.

Alesha & Aaryn at the 2017 Auckland Zinefest

On May 28, 2016 REA was formed, which happens to be the anniversary of the English Laws Act 1858. Fast-forward to 2017, with the New Zealand general election around the corner, and REA is still developing and strengthening. Our core organisers are a talented, passionate, diverse and grounded bunch of people – political party candidates; community organisers for Asian solidarity with Māori indigenous rights; PhD candidates; Māori health clinicians; an architect; and people completing their Masters. In short though, we’re a group of organisers in our 20s trying to contribute to a racially equitable world.

When it comes to our collective goals, I feel that they all come under the aim of building decolonising relationships and actions with and between tangata whenua and tangata tiriti. There are a lot of interconnected goals that come under that umbrella, and one of the key dynamics we’ve been looking at over the past year is the relationship between Māori and PoC – people of colour.

Given that it is an election year in New Zealand, is REA actively lobbying on any particular issues?
Yeah I feel that, quite naturally, we’ve tried to increase the counter-narrative that not only speaks against the usual xenophobic scapegoating of migrants – especially migrants of colour – but also talks to a tikanga Māori perspective on immigration. Before the election campaign truly started we were emphasising this counter-narrative, a discourse that we’ll probably be advocating for after the elections too. Both Māori and tangata tiriti, in particular PoC, face entrenched systemic racism every day from a white-colonial system that continues to perpetuate social inequality and lateral violence within these communities.

Read Kingi Snelgar on the limits & frustrations of a white legal system

Part of lobbying for an immigration system based on tikanga Māori is the hope of addressing, to some extent, the above social concerns. Most political parties, at one point or another in the election campaign, have chosen to stick to the status quo of blaming everything from house prices to traffic congestion solely on immigration – instead of focussing on addressing underdeveloped infrastructure and the high cost of living in New Zealand.

Is your work inspired by other organisations globally which face the same issues concerning pejorative views about immigration?
Yeah definitely, the main one that comes to mind is ‘No One Is Illegal’ (NOII). It’s a grassroots anti-colonial migrant justice movement, that originated in Canada, with its leadership from members of migrant and/or racialised backgrounds. The movement, which has many chapters across Canada, places significant emphasis on the relationships between indigenous and migrant communities. Harsha Walia’s book Undoing Border Imperialism outlines the ethos, hopes and work of NOII in great detail.

However, though NOII is an excellent group, caution should be taken in trying to mimic their social justice organising outside of the Canadian context. The border imperialism happening on Turtle Island, Canada is very different – though there are some similarities – from the colonial border security here at home. That’s why we need more movements in Aotearoa New Zealand that practice our own ways of anti-colonial migrant justice activism.

What examples of “immigration myths” do you see present in both the New Zealand and international media?
When it comes to the media, and its portrayal of immigration myths, I feel that the word ‘threat’ encompasses the plethora of myths:

A threat to national security.

A threat to infrastructure, roads and housing.

A threat to jobs, education and healthcare.

When the media talk about immigration or migrant ‘threats’ – as can be expected – it’s always racialised. Coupled with faux-political statistics wielded by xenophobic politicians, these myths of a racialised foreign threat become normalised in our society. So there then becomes a focus on home-buyers with ‘Chinese-sounding-names’ – as if to say that people with Chinese heritage cannot be New Zealanders too – or we end up demonising Indian migrant students that are up for deportation, instead of questioning the exploitative export-education system in this country.

Read Golriz Ghahraman on identity & democracy: I can’t shed my skin

Whatever the myth, both internationally and nationally, migrants of colour are portrayed in the media as an ‘othered’ threat who do not belong in our so-called multicultural societies. These myths-turned-into-facts help to continue both the rampant rise in xenophobia as well as lateral violence between migrants of colour and indigenous communities – while capitalism and white supremacy remain systemically in place.

What are the goals for REA in the future political landscape of New Zealand?
One of the ongoing goals for REA is to keep fostering and strengthening connections between tangata whenua and tangata tiriti. Relationship-building may not seem like a radical-revolutionary goal but there’s no point trying to dismantle systemic racism – and create a more equitable world – if you’re just going to talk to yourself and the already converted. Whanaungatanga is an important facet in tikanga Māori. Yes politics is a numbers game, but it’s also about weaving communities together and getting people engaged and excited.

Carrie Stoddart-Smith, Ellipsister, Whanau Ora, New Zealand
Read Carrie Stoddart-Smith on the pros & cons of Whānau Ora

On the near horizon we hope to publish a book that, just like Walia’s Undoing Border Imperialism, sets the precedent for the discourse on the relationships between indigenous communities and migrants of colour. A big difference though would be the contextualising of the book to Aotearoa New Zealand. Also, it would be awesome if we were able to develop our scope into the worlds of research, policy and consultancy. All in all the hope is that these goals add to the wider narrative of seeing constitutional transformation in Aotearoa New Zealand by 2040.

Here’s to the next 20-odd years of putting in the work.


Alesha Niuapu is a Māori and Samoan researcher from Aotearoa New Zealand. She is currently completing an MA in Māori Development at Auckland University of Technology. Find Racial Equity Aotearoa.

Evelyn Marsters has a PhD in Development Studies from the University of Auckland (NZ) and is currently based in Berlin. Her focus is global health and migration, and she is Deputy Editor at Impolitikal. Read more by Evelyn.