Shock visa decision could scupper Tongan basketballer's dream

A member of Tonga's men's basketball team may be forced to miss this year's Pacific Games after being classified as an overstayer in New Zealand.

Auckland athlete Stephen Paea said he feared that if he left New Zealand, Immigration NZ would prevent him from re-entering the country.

The 19-year-old has lived in New Zealand since he was two-years-old and he only found out he was an overstayer last year.

He said his visa applications were declined with no explanation given.

"I found out just as I was in my last year at school and I was beginning to start applying for jobs when I was told by Immigration that I wasn't allowed to work because I didnt have a valid visa.

"I applied online but was declined under the section of the Act where they didn't need to give a reason for it being declined."

The decision came in February just before the 3x3 Asian Cup in Singapore which he was unable to attend with the Tongan team.

"I was upset and confused over why it was declined. I've been in New Zealand almost my entire life and being declined was hurtful.

"And especially having that opportunity to go over to Singapore and represent Tonga that was heartbreaking not being able to play in that."

Paea said he was scared to leave the house.

"Every day I would leave the house for training or whatever and I would pray that Immigration wouldn't come out of nowhere and pick me up and take me to the airport and stick me on a flight to Tonga.

"A lot of us Pacific Islanders we come to New Zealand for a better future and New Zealand is all we know and then all of a sudden we get told we have to go back to Tonga. That's really traumatising for us."

According to the Immigration Act, visa applications can be denied without explanation.

The treatment of overstayers in New Zealand has long been criticised by human rights advocates.

Director of Tonga's National Basketball Association Cahn Fitzgerald said the visa issue is restricting him from opportunities in the sport.

Fitzgerald has been pushing his case to get a visa but said Immigration NZ's ardous visa process is major barrier.

"Just trying to figure out what's needed, the visa requirements, how to submit things,what proof and evidence you need, access to legal's just a mine field," said Fitzgerald.

"This is a kid who spent his entire his life in New Zealand...he has been raised as a New Zealander.

"We've been working with an immigration lawyer to push his case forward."

Earlier this year it was revealed that a Pasifika overstayer was detained after a dawn raid. His lawyer said police showed up at his home just after 5am.

That was despite a formal apology in 2021 by the then prime minister Jacinda Ardern for the racist immigration policies that drove the infamous early morning raids of the 1970s which Ardern said left Pacific communities feeling "targeted and terrorised".