Pacific Island overstayer urges Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to grant residency to others living illegally in New Zealand

An overstayer from the Pacific Islands and Pasifika leaders are pleading the Government to "be kind and compassionate" by offering permanent residency to all overstayers in New Zealand, arguing their illegal status while here could put the country at risk for transmitting COVID-19.

There are over 10,000 overstayers who can't be contact traced, who can't take a virus test and some who won't go to the doctor since they're living secretly in New Zealand.

Before moving to New Zealand 11 years ago, one overstayer Ofa - which isn't her real name - grew up in Tonga as one of 10 children, and went straight to work after leaving high school to help out her family.

"When I was in Tonga we were poor. Our life was earning money from my mum's weaving and my dad's fishing. That's the reason I was overstaying here, just to help my family back home," Ofa told The Project.

Of the over 10,000 overstayers in New Zealand, almost half are from Samoa and Tonga.

During the lockdown, Ofa's husband lost his job. They were eligible for government support, but didn't want to take it in case they outed themselves as overstayers.

"When I rang those numbers the Government provided, I was nervous. The questions they were asking: 'May I have your name? May I have your address?' Those kinds of questions make me scared. I don't want to provide my identity because of my situation."

Activist Kennedy Maeakafa Fakana'ana'aki Fualu - known in his south Auckland community as the Tongan Robin Hood - has been helping out overstayers since the late 1980s, when many Tongans arrived in New Zealand on a temporary visa waiver.

"A lot of them are like shadows. They're not counted. They move from house to house, from garage to garage," he told The Project.

"During lockdown, they were part of the essential services workers. They were out there cleaning, picking food to keep the food supply going."

Next month, he and other Pacific leaders will present a petition to Parliament that asks the Government to give overstayers pathways to residency.

For Pasifika, the word 'overstayer' is a reminder of the dawn raid era, when racist policies led police to swoop on homes in the early hours and demand people's visas.

"In the 1970s my uncles were here, even my father. What they faced back then was terrible. We're optimistic it doesn't happen like the 70s busting down doors in the early hours and arresting people, including those that were residents."

In 1974, Norman Kirk's Labour government granted overstayers an amnesty, and there were regular amnesties after that.

Immigration lawyer Alastair McClymont says there used to be amnesties granted every three of fours years, but he recalls the last overstayers' amnesty was about 20 years ago.

"Now it's really important because we have COVID - we have the danger of people taking COVID back to other countries," McClymont told The Project.

"They're the people who have built this economy and kept it going and some have been here for years and even decades. And to now say, 'Thanks very much, go home' is incredibly inhumane and totally lacking in any compassion and empathy whatsoever."

Ofa hopes Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will help out her and other overstayers.

"I always watch our PM, she always says be kind and compassionate to others. So I will just ask the power people, if there's any chance, be kind and compassionate to us overstayers. Please."