Thousands of Maori people protested across New Zealand on Tuesday calling for an end to the practice of taking at-risk children away from their families, as tensions grow between the indigenous community and the government.
Children facing harm have been moved into state care for decades despite criticism from many Maori people, who believe the process is racially skewed and a legacy of colonization. Most of the children taken into state care are Maori.
Newsroom, an online news site, reported recently that officials from the children’s ministry, called Oranga Tamariki, tried to take a new-born baby away from her mother in hospital.
The report sparked public outrage and is potentially embarrassing for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who is known globally for her compassionate style of governing but is also accused by her critics of ignoring domestic issues.
Tuesday’s protest coincided with another stand-off with thousands of Maori protesters in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, over plans to build a housing project on land they believe is sacred.
Hundreds of protesters gathered in front of parliament on Tuesday shouting slogans and carrying placards that said: “Hands off our tamariki” – the Maori word for children. Protests were also held in other major cities.
Protesters call the children New Zealand’s “stolen generation” – a reference to indigenous Australians forcibly taken from their families as children under an official policy of assimilation.
Oranga Tamariki said in a report last week more than a hundred children had been harmed while in state care in the first three months of the year.
The twin disputes present a challenge for Ardern’s Labour-led coalition, which needs to keep its Maori voters ahead of an election next year.
Maori seats are part of Labour’s support base and played a big part in Ardern’s 2017 election win, said Bryce Edwards, a political commentator at Wellington’s Victoria University.
“These types of issues are proxies for some of the wider discontent. The government is on shaky ground now because there is no indication that they have made any progress on some issues of inequality,” he said.
“There are very difficult problems … I’m not sure the government has any answers at the moment,” Edwards said.
Ardern is on an official visit to the dependent South Pacific territory of Tokelau but a spokesman said her administration had inherited “a chronically underfunded system” from the previous centre-right National Party government.
“New Zealand has two long-term problems we are trying to fix, too many children are removed from their families and end up in state care and, so too, many children are killed or hurt by their families,” he said in an emailed statement.