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Deportee reintegration is a major concern for Tonga this week as United States officials arrived to take part in a three days conference with the Tongan government and law enforcement officials in Nuku'alofa.
“Reintegration of citizens who sometimes don't know their native land, tradition and culture is a challenge,” said the U.S. Ambassador to Tonga, Judith Cefkin.
The United States last year deported 19 Tongan citizens, with three so far in 2017.
No one is estimating how many more deportees will come under the new US administration's hardline deportation policy over the next four years, but the level of concern on the agenda at the National Deportation Reintegration Conference suggests that many more deportees are expected to arrive in Tonga.
The conference will consider the mental health services, drug/alcohol abuse services, anger management services and housing that Tonga will need to cope with the reintegration of foreign offenders into Tongan society.
Tonga's deputy Prime Minister and new Minister for Foreign Affairs, Siaosi Sovaleni, pointed out that social welfare programMEs are not available in Tonga for deportees, who are socially dislocated on arrival and faced "significant" barriers to integration into the community.
He said that ethnic Tongans convicted of assault, burglary, drug-related charges, gang violence and other serious crimes are being deported from the United States, Australia, New Zealand and abroad to Tonga.
The conference aims to create a national policy on how to reintegrate Tongan citizens who have been deported from other countries.
Ambassador Cefkin said the conference was the result of two-years of consultation and discussion between the United States, the Tongan government and law enforcement officials dealing with deportee reintegration.
She said when visiting Nuku'alofa, Tongan leaders had raised concerns about how best to return Tongan citizens convicted of crimes in the United States.
“This conference is an opportunity for Tonga to formulate its national policy for receiving and assimilating returning citizens into Tongan society. The strategy that you can craft in the next three-days will serve as both a guide and support system for future deportees returning to Tonga,” she said.
The United States sent two experts to the conference, Assistant Adjutant General Army/Director Joint of Staff Nevada National Guard and Nevada Police Officer, Brigadier General Zachary F. Doser and Vernon Mackenzie from the Office of the Attorney General Samoa Returnees Charitable Trust.
Ambasasdor Cefkin said last year their Regional Security Office overhauled the process for all returning deportees from the United States.
The policy now included giving the Government of Tonga at least three-weeks notice prior to deportation, providing a photograph, criminal history, fingerprint card and any other information that might be useful to the Tongan law enforcement.
She said these changes resulted from extensive conversations between their regional security office, the Tonga government, police and immigration officials.
“Our Regional Security Office has now worked closely with Tongan authorities to manage the return of a number of deportees. The advanced coordination and new procedures ensued proper measures were taken for the successful deportation of these Tongan citizens.
“Reintegration of citizens who sometimes don't know their native land, tradition and culture is a challenge. It is all the more difficult to reintegrate deportees who ended up on the wrong side of the law. Working together I believe all the stakeholders can help the deportees find a productive role in Tongan society.”
Sovaleni said Tonga was open to new ideas and “to finding solutions to growing concerns in Tonga relating to reintegration of deportees.”
Social dislocation upon arrival was a key factor affecting reintegration and getting employment. Many deportees had poor language skills and cultural connectedness.
Although Tonga in the past had tried to come up with networks to help support deportees, through the Ironman Ministry, Foki ki ‘Api Deportation Reconnection Programme and the Tonga Lifeline Crisis Ministry of the FWC but all are not well being supported and not operating at maximum capacity, he said.
“This conference is of vital importance to identify gaps in current arrangements between deporting countries and Tonga, develop a reintegration plans for deportees, identify any policy changes that need to be crated for a successful transition of deportees, determine stakeholders to take owners of the deportation process, identifying additional requirement and new policy for successful transition while considering financial support for proposed programmes,” he said.
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