Why did a mother have to die? Looking for an answer to Tongan community’s rising level of gang violence in New Zealand

Commentary by Kaniva news.

Tongans in New Zealand have more opportunities than before.

There are Tongans in the New Zealand cabinet, Tongans are graduating with doctorates in everything from philosophy to chemistry and more and more are entering the professions.

Tongans are becoming more prosperous and have many examples among their community they can look to for stories of success.

So why was a Tongan mother shot dead in Favona last week?

Police suspect she was killed  by gang members who went to her house looking for her son.

This is the latest in a number of cases where Tonga’s in New Zealand have been involved in drug related crime.  Some of these cases had been the largest ever  in New Zealand criminal history.

The behaviour of these criminals does not reflect the behavior or the beliefs of most Tongans.

So what has happened?

According to The Economist, New Zealand has one of the world’s biggest gang membership rates. Last year New Zealand police said the problem had been made worse  by the deportation of Australian gang members to New Zealand. With more gang members there have been more threats inter-gang violence, use of firearms and corrupting of officials.

More young people have become involved with drugs and as they get older or more ambitious  may seek to join one of the hardcore criminal units. Police describe some juvenile gang members as ‘wannabes’ who like to dress the part and commit petty crimes, but who are disorganised.

There have been concerns about Tongan criminal gangs such as the so-called Tongan Crip Gang since the 90s when Police in Utah identified several Islander based gangs, including the Tongan Crip Gangsters and the Tongan Style Gangsters.

The problems of disaffected, poor and badly educated young people becoming gang members is reflected on this side of the Pacific.

In 2018 The Guardian reported that Auckland was “struggling to provide adequate housing, transport and social services for its booming – and very youthful – Pacific population. The median age of Islanders in Auckland is just 22.6 years, and they are disproportionately represented in low socioeconomic indicators. Overcrowding has become an entrenched issue as Auckland has become one of the most expensive cities in the world to live.”

These slow burning problems lie at the back of many criminal activities.

New Zealand police believe young people may be drawn to a life of crime by poverty and from living in depressed or disorganised communities which lack a sense of pride.

In such communities the parents’ engagement with their children can be limited by their long work hours and financial pressures. Parental unemployment might also be a factor. Gangs can provide a source of financial and material gain.

Young people of Island descent may be badly affected by the loss of village support by first- and second-generation immigrants.

Where children do poorly at school, or are excluded from school because of their behaviour, they may also start on the path towards serious adult gang membership. Statistics show that young men of Islander descent are over-represented in jails and the courts.

The temptation of the enormous sums of money that can be made from drug dealing are too much for many to resist.

But for many gang members, there is often also the attraction that gang membership offers a surrogate family, a structure and respect that they feel they do not have at home.

There is no easy answer to these issues and there never has been. Punishment alone will not change things. Experience has often shown that sometimes the only solution is for parents, schools, communities, police, churches and social services to work together to reach out to gang members, particularly when they are young and before they become enmeshed in drugs and hard crime and to keep holding that hand out.

There also need to be major changes in the way students are educated, in what work is available, what apprenticeships and skills are provided. This is something for the government. There may also need to be major changes in the way some parents raise their children and in the demands placed on families by pastors and ministers who sometimes forget they have grown up in New Zealand and not Tonga.

No mother should die and no young Tongan should be deluded into thinking that a life of crime will bring them respect.

It is time for the Tongan community to come together and  prove to potential gang members that they can achieve respect through education, work and the support of caring families and a stable community.


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