Is sending troubled youths back to the islands really the answer?

A new study of Samoan youth gangs in South Auckland has found that sending troubled youth back to their homeland can be detrimental to their wellbeing, and that of the village they are sent to.



Gisa Dr Moses Faleolo spent more than a year listening to the life stories of young men who had been sent back to live with extended family in Samoa in a bid to separate them from gang life in New Zealand.


Gisa Dr Faleolo discovered that what seemed to be a good idea in fact, sometimes, had a negative impact on the young men and the Samoan villagers.


His study, From the Street to the Village: The Transfer of NZ Youth Gang Culture to Samoa reveals insights into the lives of five members of Samoan youth gangs living in South Auckland, aged between 16 and 24.


Over time he won their trust and they opened up to him about their lives and the paths that had led them to violence and crime.


Gisa Dr Faleolo says despite the best intentions, moving gang members out of the community and back to Samoa often fell short of expectations.


“Rather than depend on extended families in Samoa to carry out the ‘transformation’, a more formal multi-faceted policy approach is needed,” he says.


“While the parents hope their extended families back home can persuade their child to relinquish gang values, culture and activities, and re-connect with more traditional Samoan values, culture and language, it often doesn’t happen,” say Gisa Dr Faleolo.


“Instead, they use what they learned in their gang to adapt and adjust to authoritarian Samoan village life.


For some, the experience was significant on an emotional level.


One boy felt separated, isolated and distanced from his mum, to whom he was very close as his life in New Zealand was all he knew.


The experience of being sent to Samoa made him feel ‘abandoned’ and ‘disowned’.


Others had to re-adapt to Samoan life after more than a decade of living in New Zealand.


Gisa Dr Faleolo says the boys created gangs that replicated New Zealand ethnic minority gangs to build reputations for themselves in order to feel or be protected.


This allowed them to continue the activities they were involved in while in New Zealand.


There are five life stories used in this research formed part of Dr Faleolo’s doctoral study Hard-Hard. Solid! Life Histories of Samoans in Bloods Youth Gangs in New Zealand, with 25 young gang members having been interviewed.


Involuntary return migration to Samoa was one of the key themes identified in that study, and forms the basis of Gisa Dr Faleolo’s latest research.


According to Gisa Dr Faleolo once the boys were returned to New Zealand, it was not long before they drifted back into gang life and crime.


Most of them remain unemployed and their police records and lack of school qualifications remain obstacles to entering the workforce.


With three becoming young fathers not long after returning to Auckland.


“A few of them also ended up on home detention,” he says, “and are before the courts for violent crimes.”


Gisa Dr Faleolo posits that it is time to consider a strategy to prevent the transfer of youth gang culture from New Zealand to Samoa, as failure to act could be detrimental to Samoa’s villages, community development and sectors such as health, education, law and order, social development, religion, economy and cultural identity.


“If the growth of gang culture isn’t addressed, the erosion of Samoan society could be at stake, as a new generation of Samoan youth find the attractions of gang membership greater than those of being a proud Samoan,” he advises.


He is calling for a strategy to be implemented to ensure that extended family members, villages and social services are equipped with the means to manage wayward behaviour.


“It works by placing the onus of responsibility on key village institutions to help rehabilitate Samoan youth sent back from New Zealand.


An example of this strategy would see a young man assigned a taule‘ale‘a [responsible for many tasks and duties to contribute to the wellbeing of the village] as a buddy, upon arrival.


The youth will not stay with his extended family, but may visit or spend a night with them.


The taule‘ale‘a passes on what he has been taught, and activates the process of correcting and reforming.


“They would learn things like the aganu‘u [customs and beliefs], who he is, who his family members are, his ancestral lineage, the importance of respect, obedience, humility and love,” he says.


The model offers many advantages on an individual level, but also on a village level.


“It can build strong character, improve relationships and enhance attitudinal traits like patience, forgiveness and resilience.


“It also minimises the strain on families, because they have the support of the village.”


He says there is a need for the Samoan government to review and re-think existing policies, and consider this new strategy as a starting point for new policy development.