17 May 2024

NZers trapped by New Caledonia riots feel 'abandoned' by their own country

9:14 pm on 17 May 2024
French gendarme officers guard the entrance of the Vallee-du-Tir district, in Noumea on May 14, 2024, amid protests linked to a debate on a constitutional bill aimed at enlarging the electorate for upcoming elections of the overseas French territory of New Caledonia. After scenes of violence of "great intensity" including burned vehicles, looted stores and clashes between demonstrators and the police, a curfew was decreed in Noumea, 17,000 kilometers from Paris, as the independentists of the overseas French territory of New Caledonia oppose a constitutional revision they fear will "further minimize the indigenous Kanak people". (Photo by Theo Rouby / AFP)

Five people have died and hundreds have been injured in Nouméa as protests rage. Photo: AFP / Theo Rouby

New Zealanders stuck among riots and civil unrest in New Caledonia's capital say they feel abandoned by their own country, having received little help from the government.

Nouméa descended into chaos on Monday, with armed clashes between indigenous Kanak pro-independence protesters and security forces.

They were sparked by anger at a proposed new law that would allow French residents who have lived there for more than 10 years to vote - which some say will weaken the Kanak vote.

Since then, five people have died, including two police, and hundreds have been injured in the French territory.

Late on Friday there were reports of clashes between police and rioters around a domestic airport near Nouméa, as New Caledonia's capital enters its fourth night under curfew. Local media reported rioters on the airfield at Magenta airport threw hammers and stones at police, and police responded with tear gas and stun grenades.

Police warned the military was authorised to use lethal weapons if they could not contain the situation otherwise. And a local told RNZ Pacific the Kanaks were not going to back down, and things could get 'nasty' in the coming days if the army could not contain the situation.

New Zealanders feeling marooned and abandoned

Four friends from North Canterbury landed in Nouméa on Monday as part of a "lifetime dream" trip.

Shula and Wolf Guse, and Sarah and William Hughes-Games, were celebrating Shula's birthday and Sarah and William's 40th wedding anniversary.

But fresh off their flight, it became clear their celebrations would not be going ahead.

"As we left the airport, there were blocks just everywhere ... burning tyres, and people stopping us, and lots of big rocks on the road, and branches, and people shouting, waving flags," Shula Guse said.

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They wanted to get out of there, but had barely heard a peep from New Zealand government organisation SafeTravel, Sarah Hughes-Games said.

"All they've done is sent us a ... general letter, nothing specific," she said.

"We've contacted the New Zealand Consulate here in Nouméa, and they are closed. This is the one time they should be open and helping people."

It was not good enough, she said.

"We've basically been just abandoned here, so we're just feeling a little bit fed up about the situation, that we've just been left alone, and nobody's contacted us."

It was unclear when they would be able to leave.

Another looted supermarket in Nouméa’s Kenu-In neighbourhood.

A looted supermarket in Nouméa. Photo: NC la 1ère

Meanwhile, another person told RNZ they had family stuck in Nouméa who had registered on SafeTravel, but had heard nothing more from the government. They were struggling to find food and were feeling uneasy, they said.

"They don't know where to go now and there seems to be no help from anywhere."

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Air New Zealand confirmed it was forced to cancel its upcoming flights between Nouméa and Auckland on Saturday and Monday, with the airport in Nouméa closed until at least Tuesday.

"Even when the airport does reopen, Air New Zealand will only operate into Nouméa when we can be assured that the airport is safe and secure, and that there is a safe route for our ground staff and customers to reach the airport," it said.

MFAT in 'regular contact' with impacted New Zealanders

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it had activated its emergency crisis system, and consular officials in Nouméa were in regular contact with impacted New Zealanders, New Caledonia authorities, and "international partners".

The Consulate-General was open, but staff were working remotely because it was hard to get around, it said. Those who needed immediate consular assistance should contact the 24/7 Consular Emergency line on +64 99 20 20 20.

"An in-person meeting was held for a large group of New Zealanders in Nouméa yesterday (Thursday 16 May) and further meetings are taking place today," a spokesperson said.

"Consular officials are also proactively attempting to contact registered New Zealanders in New Caledonia to check on their situations, and any specific health or welfare concerns.

"Regular SafeTravel messages are also being sent to New Zealanders - we urge New Zealanders to register on SafeTravel to receive direct messages from consular officials."

The ministry was also speaking regularly with New Caledonian authorities about airport operations and access, and access to critical supplies like food and medicine.

"New Zealanders in New Caledonia should stay in place and avoid all protests, monitor local media for developments, and comply with any instructions and restrictions issued by local authorities."

There are currently 219 New Zealanders registered on SafeTravel as being in New Caledonia.

Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters told Morning Report the government was doing all it could to get New Zealanders home.

That could include using the Air Force, he said.

The Defence Force confirmed there have been discussions with officials.

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