In partnership with the Dare to Dream (‘Amanaki Lelei) Foundation.
Founded by and for Tongan returnees.
Collective testimony from the five founding returnees: “We just found out that we all share a Common Dream: To make better human beings out of ourselves and others whom we can help through our life-stories. To be involved in this humanitarian but very worthwhile venture that is much needed in Tonga. To help this target group of human beings that have been abandoned and stigmatised by society and make great gentlemen out of them. We are hoping to remove the stigma and make the word “deportee” a symbol of hope and better life for all. Society also needs to change their mindset about returnees so we are willing to make a difference to convince the societal change of mindset and attitude.”
ICAAD is concerned about the deportation of Tongans from countries including the United States, Australia and New Zealand, and the limited support they receive upon arrival to Tonga. This is a human rights issue and, in our view, constitutes a violation of their right to life with dignity. We’ve been working to support Tongan nonprofit Dare to Dream (Amanaki Lelei Foundation), which was founded by returnees and works to improve conditions and wellbeing for returnees in Tonga.
In 2018, 20 individuals were deported to Tonga from the U.S. In 2019 and 2020, ten more individuals were deported. This was a smaller number likely due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with the U.S. authorities focusing on deporting individuals with criminal convictions or pending criminal charges. Between 2013 and 2018, New Zealand deported approximately 120 individuals with criminal convictions.
Deportation is one method that states rely on in an attempt to use punishment and isolation to resolve a number of issues underlying crime. Not only does this type of criminalization fail to address the structural conditions that drive people to, for example, participate in the drug trade, steal, or even commit interpersonal harm, this approach also contravenes international law.
The number of deportations to Tonga is expected to increase in the coming years. Already from 2022 to February 2023, there were 25 new deportees reported from Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and the Cook Islands. Many, if not most of the returnees, had a limited connection to Tonga before being returned. Upon arrival, returnees are given almost no support adjusting to their new home, and social stigma follows them in nearly all aspects of their lives.
The Tongan government is ill-equipped to manage the incoming wave of returnees. Deporting states are also falling short in ensuring that deportees’ right to life with dignity is not violated by their deportation.
What is the right to life with dignity?
The right to life with dignity is a human right under Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). This right is guaranteed to all humans, and states are under an obligation not to deport an individual from a territory if there is a real chance that their right to life with dignity could be violated.
However, what “dignity” means has never been explicitly defined. It has been framed as a broad right that includes personal autonomy and general societal conditions conducive to human development. With limited guidance on what this right means in a deportation context, states have been able to deport individuals with relative ease.
What should the guiding standard be?
We propose that an individual should not be sent back to their home country, even if they have committed a crime, if their right to life with dignity is threatened. For an individual in the U.S. facing deportation to Tonga, authorities should consider whether that individual will face significant economic barriers and social ostracization in their country of citizenship, whether the individual arrived to the U.S. as a child, and the extent to which the individual has family ties in the U.S. compared to Tonga.
At the same time, states that are receiving returnees have a duty to protect their right to life with dignity by mitigating discrimination that returnees face and providing returnees with economic opportunities that enable them to be financially independent.
We believe this guiding standard should be used globally as a way to ensure that the movement of people is conducted in a way that protects their human rights. Whether for someone who has committed a crime, or whether for someone fleeing climate impacts, in today’s interconnected world there is an urgent need for a better framework to protect the right to life with dignity.
What does dignity mean to Tongan returnees?
ICAAD conducted a group interview with several of the Dare to Dream founders and members to document their concerns, deportation experiences, the barriers they have faced since arriving in Tonga, and what a life with dignity means to them.
Returnee M stated that one part of living his life with dignity is being with loved ones, which is currently impossible as all of his siblings and loved ones live in the U.S. as U.S. citizens, with the exception of one brother who was deported back to Tonga in 2001.
Returnee A described dignity as encompassing self-respect, something that he feels strongly now after changing his way of life and embracing his Tongan heritage after returning. When asked what the State’s responsibility is in allowing people to live life with dignity, A expressed a desire for returnees such as himself to be viewed as Tongans by the government.
What barriers do Tongan returnees face?
The primary barriers returnees face are unemployment, social ostracization, and cultural barriers.
Regarding employment, the only jobs returnees are able to secure when arriving to Tonga are low-paying, short-term jobs. All of the returnees interviewed believed that the scarcity of employment opportunities directly contributes to many returnees “going back to their old ways,” including participating in drug trade. Returnees expressed frustration at not being allowed to use their skills because of Tongan employer’s and society’s unwelcoming attitude to new ideas.
The group also explained how the returnee label was attached to them as soon as they arrived in Tonga and how the label followed them through Tongan society. The returnee label automatically translates to troublemaker, and returnees are treated almost as scapegoats with all crime on the island automatically attributed to them.
This social ostracization is compounded by linguistic and cultural barriers. All of the returnees interviewed left Tonga as children and were returned after spending their entire adult lives in Western nations. As a result, they had to either learn or improve their Tongan language skills once they returned. Additional cultural barriers include the family expectations returnees are met with, especially managing expectations of family members who returnees have often never met before.
This initiative is part of ICAAD’s Right to Life with Dignity Project, where we are working to support the mobility of displaced persons around the world.