Tokelau family under house arrest for nearly a year over vaccine defiance

A family has been under house arrest in Tokelau for almost a year after they refused to get vaccinated against Covid-19.

The tunoa was imposed on the family of four by the Taupulega, or council, on Nukunonu, one of the three atolls that make up Tokelau.

The New Zealand dependency with a population of about 1500 has had no cases of Covid-19 since the global pandemic began in early 2020, according to the World Health Organisation.

However, there are strict protocols in place to prevent the spread of the virus.

The general manager for the office of the council of Nukunonu, Asi Pasilio, explained to RNZ Pacific why the council of 36 heads of extended families who serve the atoll's community, decided to impose tunoa - or house arrest - in August 2021.

"This is a village rule, this is the decision of the local council which runs the island and the community. We have the laws of Tokelau but we also have the local council which has the authority over their village."

Pasilio said there were no jails in Tokelau, but when there is a serious offence the council can just ask people to stay at home. Tunoa takes the place of jail.

She said it was a culturally complex issue.

"It will take someone to come here and live our life here, to understand what we mean by house arrest and council authority and communal living.

"Yes, of course, you make your own decisions here, but doing things in a communal manner is very common."

Family apologised to elders for fuss online

In a video posted on social media on July 3, the father, Mahelino Patelesio, said he has felt silenced among many other things.

He said he was a member of the council before this transpired. "Before we were placed under house arrest, I explained my stance and I wasn't allowed to speak at that particular meeting, I actually went there to resign, I wasn't allowed to do that so I was voiceless.

"From August the third [2021] three of us adults above 16-years-old were placed under house arrest, our daughter was placed under house arrest with us about four months later, towards Christmas," Patelesio said.

RNZ Pacific has since spoken with the family.

Mahelino Patelesio said he has apologised to Tokelau elders for the fuss the situation has caused online.

"It's along the lines of an apology of the mess that has resulted from us not having our rights," Patelesio said.

Furthermore he said he respects the council and its members.

Asi Pasilio said while the family is in tunoa they are being supported by the community.

"Their house is right beside the sea so they can go for a swim, they can move around their area but not outside their home boundary.

"They have family members who do their shopping for them."

Pasilio said the family has been told they have another opportunity to get vaccinated this week following the arrival of more doses.

She said the family had not informed the council of their decision as of Tuesday but if they do choose to get a jab, the tunoa will be lifted.

If they do not, the council will meet again to review the situation.

Patelesio said his position remains firm when it comes to getting vaccinated, "I am not sure what is going to happen but if it is to do with us getting injected then we will have to refuse," he said.

He said he has asked his matai, (council member representative) to bring up his concerns, "my request was to be able to get our own supplies from across the lagoon from our customary land and not to rely on other family to make that effort for us, I thought that was reasonable".