They were deported to Tonga as strangers to their own land. Now these returnees are helping fight a drug crisis

They were deported to Tonga as strangers to their own land. Now these returnees are helping fight a drug crisis
  • PublishedMay 12, 2024

As Latu Liava’a set foot again in Tonga, he felt like a stranger in his former country after years living in “the heart of gangs” on the US west coast.

His family left the South Pacific nation when he was two years old, and he grew up in Inglewood, Los Angeles, where he fell in with local drug dealers.

He remembers a school teacher asking him what he wanted to be when he grew up.

“I said ‘I’m gonna be a dope dealer’ and she looked at me like I was crazy,” Mr Liava’a said.

“I made my decision to live the life I wanted to live, which was the fast lane.”

Criminal activity led to his deportation from the US in 2009, and his unexpected return to Tonga after 27 years.

When Tongan police officers removed his shackles and conducted a quick interview after his arrival, Mr Liava’a asked how he could get home.

They pointed to the long stretch of road outside the airport, and said: “That’s the road, find your way home.”

It’s a situation that has grown more common in Tonga and across the Pacific, where the number of deportees has increased in the past decade.

But many “returnees” are coming back with few or no links to the communities they’re re-entering, and some say Pacific countries lack the resources to help them.

A man wearing an island shirt looks up into a shaft of light.
Latu Liava’a returned to Tonga after nearly three decades living in the United States. (ABC News: Alice Lolohea)

Mr Liava’a, now settled in Tonga, has helped form Dare to Dream — a group helping others find their feet after being deported to the country.

But Mr Liava’a warns more support is needed to deal with the issue.

And some say “returnees” to Tonga could become an asset in fighting its own growing drug problem.

Foki ki ‘api (returning home)

Mr Liava’a joined with four other Tongans deported from the US to form Dare to Dream.

Group board member Katrina Ma’u Fatiaki said the founders decided to use their experiences of reintegrating into Tonga to help others in the same situation.

“From there, they really prayed about finding key agents of change, people who will be wanting to make a difference,” she said.

Katrina Ma'u Fatiaki
Katrina Ma’u Fatiaki is on the board of Dare to Dream, which is helping returnees resettle in Tonga.(ABC News: Alice Lolohea)

Dare to Dream members began to meet deportees when they arrived at the airport in Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa — to pray, talanoa (have a conversation) and connect them with family.

It’s a program Mr Liava’a wishes had been provided when he returned to Tonga.

“[The] majority of them break down and cry because they actually feel the love,” Mr Liava’a said.

“[I] let them know there’s nothing to be ashamed of and we all make mistakes in life.

“But if we come back and put it into a positive perspective and use it in a positive way, that’d be better.”

Chairman of the Dare to Dream board Uhilamoelangi Fasi said one challenge was overcoming the stigma attached to the name “deportee”, or “tīpota” in Tongan.

“It was a very negative term to use ‘tīpota’ because automatically, [people think] you’re a bad person,” Dr Fasi said.

Dare to Dream airport greeting
Dare to Dream members greet returnees at the airport, connecting them with families upon arrival.(Supplied: Dare to Dream)

Instead, the group encourages using the word “returnees”, or “foki ki ‘api”, which in Tongan means “returning home”.

Dr Fasi feels it has a positive emotional influence on people.

“It softens their hearts and their minds … they look at them as Tongans who are coming home … and we need to help them,” he said.

A multinational problem

A recent Lowy Institute paper found more than 3,500 Pacific nationals were deported from Australia, New Zealand, and the US between 2004 and 2020, but said the number is likely higher given gaps in reporting.

The reasons for the deportations vary, including overstayed visas, and convictions for driving under the influence, assault, grievous bodily harm, drug trafficking or other crimes.

While Tonga is grappling with returnees, a recent International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination report found they face multiple roadblocks in reintegrating.

The report said returnees continue to be ostracised, lack employment opportunities, and face cultural and language barriers.

ICAAD director and change facilitator Erin Thomas said despite its impact on Tonga, the issue is a multinational one involving countries deporting people to the Pacific Island nation.

“There are a lot of obviously big players here. We have Australia and New Zealand and the US where a lot of these social issues actually originate,” she said.

Ms Thomas said these countries need to be involved in discussions about reintegrating returnees in Tonga.

“But in the meantime, it’s really important that the Tongan government takes action to support the growing number of returnees in Tonga,” she said.

Help hasn’t always been on hand.

Dr Fasi, also a local MP, said fellow politicians expressed support for Dare to Dream’s cause but haven’t followed up with action.

A man in a shirt and traditional woven Tongan ta'ovala leans on his desk in front of the Tongan flag.
Uhilamoelangi Fasi says Dare to Dream needs more financial support.(ABC News: Alice Lolohea)

The group has also encountered long waits and frustration in trying to secure funding through Tonga’s government and its departments, he said.

And a lack of funding is stopping Dare to Dream from meeting returnees at the airport today.

Some fear the problems that Tonga is fighting are moving at a faster pace.

Drug use and drug-related crime is rising in the Pacific nation. Earlier this year, two siblings were arrested after Tonga Police seized 15 kilograms of methamphetamine, worth more than 14 million pa’anga ($9 million). 

Bags of methamphetamine or "ice", cannabis, weigh scales and other drug paraphernalia laid out on a table.
Drugs intercepted by Tonga police in 2023.(Supplied: Tonga Police)

Children are also being exposed to drug use through their parents, and becoming targets for dealers.

And the Lowy Institute’s report on transnational crime found the deportation policies of Australia, New Zealand and the US were contributing to the drug trade in the Pacific.

“The lack of support for deportees in their home countries means many vulnerable individuals turn [or return] to crime and drug smuggling,” the paper said.

Tongan Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni said the government had provided funding for organisations like Dare to Dream to support their reintegration program.

He also said the government established an inter-agency taskforce, led by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, to focus on supporting returnees in-country.

Sioasi Sovaleni
Tongan Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni says the government is working on supporting returnees.(Supplied: Department of Defence)

Mr Sovaleni said the government understood the deportation policies of sending states, but is discussing with these countries how they can help Tonga support returnees.

Stephanie Greathead from New Zealand’s Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment said Immigration New Zealand (INZ) piloted reintegration support for returning criminal deportees with Tonga, after the COVID pandemic.

She said since May 2023, INZ offers include a modest one-off payment averaging NZ$400 ($364) per criminal deportee to reintegrate, and find employment and accommodation upon arrival.

Ms Greathead said New Zealand also previously provided pilot funding to the Dare to Dream Foundation, which it used to build a small bungalow for its headquarters.

The ABC approached the Australian and US governments for comment.

Daring to hope

Mr Liava’a agrees that without proper employment opportunities or rehabilitation support in Tonga, many returnees resume their criminal activity.

He admits after arriving back, he returned to selling ice to support his family.

When a 10-year-old boy approached him asking for “rice”, he took it as a sign to change his ways.

Bags of white powder marked as exhibits.
Tonga Police seized 15 kilograms of methamphetamine earlier this year.(Supplied: Tonga Police)

“The street name [for methamphetamine] here in Tonga was ‘rice’, little did I know he was talking about ice,” Mr Liava’a said.

“I tell him, come tomorrow the next morning at seven, [I’ll] have a bag of rice for you. But if you’re hungry, I can go get you some barbecue.

“He goes, ‘no, ‘uhinga me’a taha (I mean the other thing) … the rice you tutu (burn)’.

“This kid is 10 years old and that’s in 2018. Imagine now 2024, everybody and their mama doing it.”

Some say that because of their experiences, returnees could be one of Tonga’s assets in fighting the drug crisis.

“They know how to actually talk to individuals who are going through those issues, whether they’re a drug user, or they’re facilitators of selling drugs,” Ms Ma’u Fatiaki said.

Raymond Kafoa, another returnee and Dare to Dream member, is using his own past experiences this way.

A man in a blue-grey shirt stands in the sunlight leaning on a fence with green leaves behind him.
Raymond Kafoa helps monitor for illegal activity in the community.(ABC News: Alice Lolohea)

He participates in Polisi Kolo — a kind of neighbourhood watch that reports illegal activities to a village officer, who then contacts police.

“We know pretty much who’s the users, the people [that are] selling. We know the way they look, their behaviour. It’s easier for us to spot those kinds of people,” he said.

Dare to Dream members also visit schools and share their personal stories with students as a precautionary tale against drugs.

They’re in no doubt about the importance of their work educating Tonga’s young people.

Another returnee and Dare to Dream co-founder, Osaiasi Vivili Moala, said Tonga’s youth matter the most in solving the drug problem.

A man in an island shirt laughing, with trees in the background.
Osaiasi Vivili Moala says efforts to fight drug use need to focus on young people.(ABC News: Alice Lolohea)

“Because that’s the target these drugs people’s gonna go for is the young, the young kids,” he said.

“And once the young kids are damaged, then there’s no future for Tonga you know? There’s really no hope after that.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *