17 Feb Samoa acts to cope with paedophiles criminally deported from overseas
“We tend to think Samoa is so safe and we let our children go everywhere unsupervised. When paedophiles come here, it’s a smorgasbord for them when they see the kids just roaming around, going to the shop in the evening to buy something for mum and dad, kids selling goods on the street. People need to understand that these kinds of predators hunt and groom their victims.”
Samoa is taking steps to cope with the increasing number of paedophiles and serial sex offenders that are being criminally deported from New Zealand, Australia and the USA. Even as the President of the Samoa Returnees Charitable Trust, Magele Vernon Mackenzie calls on the deporting countries to take more responsibility. “Returnees are the products of those countries, not ours. They were born here in Samoa, but they were raised overseas.”
Three weeks ago Tomasi (not his real name) arrived at Faleolo International airport. A criminal deportee from Australia who has spent many years in and out of prison, Tomasi is classified as a serial sex predator. His victims? Children under the age of 10.
Tomasi was met at the airport by representatives of the Trust. Magele explained, “We are a voluntary service. We try to persuade returnees of the merits of joining our program. We share with them how we can help – get them some training, counselling, assistance with job searching, get them around some positive reinforcement, meet returnees who have reintegrated successfully and are doing well.”
The Trust has 60 registered members. However, there are several hundred criminal deportees who arrived before the establishment of the Charitable Trust that are not registered.
Many times, criminal deportees arrive and choose not to register.
Tomasi is one of them. He refused the invitation to sign up with the Trust.
Magele said, “He flexed his muscles and said ‘I don’t have to answer to you or anybody else.’ He cited his rights, said he was a free man. He didn’t want to register with us, didn’t want anyone knowing what he was doing. He said he was going to catch a ferry to Savaii and that was it.”
The next day, Magele saw Tomasi in Apia. “I find him turning the corner to Mcdonalds where the child vendors are. He can go to the playground, he could wait outside a school. You don’t know, we don’t know. These guys are very sophisticated. They’re under the radar because they’re functional. They know how to blend in. They have tendencies which are very scary and our police are still not trained to identify them.”
After seeing Tomasi in town, Magele was deeply troubled. He made an appointment to meet with the Patron of the Trust – Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi.
“We see 4 to 6 criminal deportees coming here every month and 80% of the guys coming back now, are listed as paedophiles or serial sex offenders.”
“I went to see the PM because of what happened at the airport with this Australian deportee. It really put me off. Really worried me. I told the PM about the numbers of returnees who are paedophiles. The Prime Minister was very concerned.”
“The challenge for the Trust is the balance between privacy and community safety. Personally I think community safety trumps privacy, especially when it comes to our children’s safety.”
Last week, the Attorney-General announced that the Prime Minister had instructed his office to finalise draft legislation for a Sex Offender’s Register, based on recommendations made by the Samoa Law Reform Commission.
Currently Samoa has no legislation in place that allows for the monitoring of criminal deportees, not even those who in other countries, would be considered high risk and/or a danger to children.
One of the Law Reform’s recommendations is for “persons who move to Samoa or are deported to Samoa following a sexual conviction overseas, to provide personal details to the police and keep them informed of their whereabouts.”
Another recommendation is to improve and strengthen national policies on the arrival, rehabilitation and reintegration of criminal deportees. The draft legislation calls for Samoa Interpol, the Transnational Crime Unit, the Police Domestic Intelligence Unit and the Charitable Trust to better work together via developing a database for monitoring and policing, and “If absolutely necessary, to request written reports from a designated person in the community about the deportee (such as a family member, faifeau, or relevant village mayor).”
The move toward SOR legislation is welcomed by Magele.
“With the law change the Trust will be allowed to register returnees and monitor them. The law will be a great tool for us. We can identify who’s high risk and we can up our field visits and calls to them and to their jobs and families. Just following up in low-key ways.”
According to a 2014 report by N. Pereira, on criminal deportation to the Pacific and the struggles of reintegration, criminal deportees to Samoa and Tonga are mostly males between 25 and 35 years of age. They have lived away from the islands for over 20 years. Meaning that most left the islands as young children and have not been back since. More than half have a spouse and children back in the host country.
Pereira’s report identified many obstacles that all criminal deportees face as they try to adapt to life in the ‘homeland’, including poor language skills, a lack of cultural connectedness, and little to no family support systems.
As Magele puts it, “Returnees are like a palagi who’s never been to Samoa before. They have no clue how to live here or how to act. They have no clue who to listen to. No respect for village, faifeau or systems of authority there. It’s a reverse culture shock for them. They need help to adjust.”
Established in 2010, the Trust is governed by a Board that includes the Attorney General, the Police Commissioner, representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office, Immigration and Customs, the Ministry of Women, SUNGO, amongst others, and also two returnee advisors, who act as the voice of the returnee community. The Trust receives technical support from government, along with assistance for their headquarters and office at Tanugamanono. Magele gratefully acknowledges the support the Trust has received from Australia and New Zealand, through the CSSP and also support from SIFA.
The Trust has its success stories, returnees who have successfully reintegrated and built a good life for themselves here. In turn, several of them are a key force working with the Trust to carry out its programs and support other returnees in their journeys.
But the Trust is not fully equipped to work with paedophiles or serial sex offenders.
“We try to get the right people who are qualified and can help our clients. But we need more trained professionals. We need people who can work with serious sex offenders.”
Magele claims that the USA has never given any support to the program. “I say to donors, please the least you can do is help out with sponsoring a workshop, or get us some counsellors who specifically deal with paedophiles. Sometimes the response is – but you help ex-cons. I ask you, where did these cons come from?!”
“We are trying to be proactive and help our clients rehabilitate. There needs to be a concerted effort between relevant agencies. We are all on the same team.”
The Trust’s funds are limited but their programs are designed to support returnees in different ways. “We try to get them to come to our office regularly. We can offer free transport, a free meal, we let them know they will be around positive reinforcement here. It’s like a safe haven.”
Magele believes the public needs to be more aware of the potential dangers. “We tend to think Samoa is so safe and we let our children go everywhere unsupervised. When paedophiles come here, it’s a smorgasbord for them when they see the kids just roaming around, going to the shop in the evening to buy something for mum and dad, kids selling goods on the street. People need to understand that these kinds of predators hunt and groom their victims.”
Magele shared an example of where a returnee, convicted overseas of sex crimes against a child, was grooming the young son of a taxi driver here in Samoa.
“He gave the taxi driver $100 to drive him around and to bring his young kid with him. This guy had snacks and presents for the kid, they were going to the movies and hanging out. I asked him, does the Dad know about you?”
“I told him, either you own up and do something different, or I’m going to go out there and tell the taxi driver. I said, you do the right thing. All this stuff? You need to stop it. You know you shouldn’t be around kids.”
Magele admits that he stepped outside of his role with the Trust. “But that was from my sense of being a Dad.”
He added, “I couldn’t believe how the taxi driver could trust this guy. No family connection at all. Gave him a big tip and then the dad is bringing the son around. Those kinds of things are really scary. How many other times is this happening? This is only the one time that I caught it.”
Another returnee, also convicted of sex offences against children, was living with his sister and her children, in close cramped quarters. Magele explained that the sister believed her brother’s crime was aggravated assault. “She didn’t know it was for sex offences against children. No one else in the aiga would take him in though. So I advised him, I can’t tell you what to do but I really think you need to have a heart to heart with your sister. I’m advising you as a parent, I would really want to know who’s coming in my door and staying with my kids.”
Three months later, Magele got a phone call from the returnee. “He said he was going to Pago to stay with an uncle, because it wasn’t working out. He said, I can’t control myself. I have to leave. It’s a catch 22 though, because I can’t inform Pago.”
Regarding the numbers of returnees in Samoa who are paedophiles and serial sex offenders, Magele said, “”We are trying to walk the tightrope between alerting the pubic about the dangers but at same time, making sure our returnees who want to change their lives, get the support they need and aren’t demonised.”
“We are trying to wake people up about how serious this problem is. What will it take for people to care about this? What scares me is that it seems, only until something really bad happens to one of our children, then people will pay attention and act.”
Magele’s fear has already happened though. At least twice.
In September 2013, a man appeared in court charged with the indecent assault of a child under the age of 10. The man’s sisters testified of his previous convictions in the USA for the rape of his daughters. A quick Google of the man’s full name shows he is listed on the California Sex Offender Archive Record. At his bail application hearing, Justice Vui said, “the defendant’s record as a registered sex offender speaks for itself. That is strong evidence of his character and past behaviour. This only goes to show the value of having a Sex offender’s Register [for Samoa] and those debating this issue should take note.”
In December 2015, a father was found guilty of 13 counts of rape of his biological daughter who was 15yrs old at the time. It was not his first offence. He had previously been convicted in NZ for the indecent assault of a young girl, and criminally deported. The Judge said he found it “astounding how a convicted sex offender deported from an overseas jurisdiction because of his offending, considered dangerous enough to warrant being accompanied to Samoa not by one but two police officers, can then be permitted to live freely and anonymously in our community with no restriction whatever. With nothing in place to prevent possible reoffending.”
Meanwhile, Tomasi is still here. Somewhere.
Magele said, “He is out there and we have no way of monitoring him plus, he’s been away from Samoa for many years. We don’t know where he is or who he’s hanging out with. We do know that he’s not the only serial sex predator or paedophile out there.”