E.g., 09/23/2023
E.g., 09/23/2023
New Zealand: The Politicization of Immigration

New Zealand: The Politicization of Immigration


It is often said that New Zealand is a "country of immigrants." The indigenous Maori population has its origins in the trans-oceanic migrations of Polynesian peoples 1,000 years ago. Maori comprised around 14 percent of New Zealand's total population of 3.8 million in 2002. Their demographic domination of the islands they call Aotearoa ended during the second half of the 19th century when colonists from the United Kingdom and northern Europe arrived in their tens of thousands to create a new "Britain" in the south seas.

Immigration has been a significant driver of population change in New Zealand since the mid-19th century, and in the early years of the 21st century net migration gains (the balance of arrivals over departures) are at the highest levels ever recorded. At the time of the Census of Population and Dwellings in March 2001, just under 20 percent of New Zealand's residents recorded a birthplace overseas. This is one of the highest proportions of overseas born in the population of any country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — behind Australia's 24 percent but ahead of Canada's 17 percent and the United States' 10 percent (see other Country Profiles).

In July 2002 immigration became a significant issue in the national elections, largely because the government's annual quota for immigrant approvals (a maximum of 53,000 in all categories) was seen by some politicians to be much too high in relation to the country's total population. These 53,000 approvals are the equivalent of 1.4 percent of the population. Very few countries have such a high per capita level of officially sanctioned immigration. Since June 2002, there has been a racially-charged debate about both the magnitude and the composition of migration flows in New Zealand's media, which parallels similar recent debates in Australia, Europe, and North America.

The fact that the majority of immigrants approved for residence in New Zealand in recent years have been from countries in Asia (especially China and India) has added to the concerns of the anti-immigration populist political party, New Zealand First. This is the local equivalent of Australia's One Nation party and the Danish People's Party.

In November 2002 the New Zealand government raised the level of competence in the English language from 5.0 to 6.5 on the proficiency test for principal applicants seeking residence visas and permits. This is the first of several policy adjustments that are being introduced in an endeavor to obtain better settlement outcomes for immigrants than current policies seem to be achieving.

Contemporary Policy Environment

New Zealand's current immigration policy has several objectives, all of which are designed to produce tangible social and economic benefits for the country. Since the late mid-1980s, the proactive immigration policies of successive governments have sought to:

  • Contribute to New Zealand's human resource base by selecting migrants who are able quickly and effectively to match their skills with opportunities in New Zealand. A points-based selection system, similar to those used in Australia and Canada, was introduced in 1991 and is used to achieve this objective.
  • Foster the development of strong international linkages by, for example, facilitating the entry of residents and travelers who will contribute to the building of strong economic and social connections with other countries. A system of bilateral visa-waiver agreements with 52 countries in Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa contributes to achieving this objective.
  • Contribute to the development of a culture of enterprise and innovation by attracting migrants and business visitors with entrepreneurial skills and experience. Specific business migration and talent visa schemes are designed to assist in achieving this objective.
  • Complement skills training and employment strategies by allocating temporary work permits to fill short-term skills shortages. Several initiatives have been adopted to fill skills shortages in the information and communication technology (ICT) sector, especially in recognition of the high level of international competition for skilled labor.
  • Reunite the families of New Zealanders and respond to the humanitarian needs of those who have close family connections with residents in New Zealand. The current immigration program allows for 32 percent of the total approvals to be in the family and humanitarian categories.
  • Meet New Zealand's obligations as a member of the international community through refugee programs. New Zealand has a long-established annual quota of 750 refugees selected by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for resettlement. Approximately 700 asylum seekers are granted refugee status each year.
  • Maintain high levels of social cohesion in a bicultural society that is becoming more diverse in terms of its ethnic composition. New Zealand's immigrant selection system, while non-discriminatory on the basis of source country, is biased towards immigrants who have a good command of the English language, and have educational and professional qualifications that are recognized by New Zealand's Qualifications Authority and professional associations. It is believed that immigrants with these attributes will be able to integrate more effectively into a society that acknowledges a bicultural ideology rooted in the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, which was signed between representatives of the indigenous Maori tribes and the British Crown in 1940.
The Treaty of Waitangi
The Treaty of Waitangi, signed on February 6, 1840, between the tribal chiefs of Aotearoa and the British Crown, brought into being the nation state of New Zealand. The treaty is the charter of constitutional government in the country. In the first clause of the treaty, the chiefs ceded the power of governance to the British Crown. Under the second clause, the Crown guaranteed the chieftainship of the chiefs over their lands, homes, and treasured possessions. The third article of the treaty granted the chiefs and their peoples the rights and privileges of British citizenship.

Biculturalism and Immigration

New Zealand is distinctive among the four "traditional lands of immigration" in North America and Australasia (Canada, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand) in the emphasis that is given to biculturalism within a context of increasing ethnic and cultural diversity. Among the four, New Zealand's indigenous population comprises the largest share of the total population and has the most prominent role in debates about the development of social and economic policy.

During the 1990s Maori began to agitate more strongly for a greater say in the development of immigration policy. In their view, the preamble to the Treaty of Waitangi, which explicitly refers to the immigration of settlers from Great Britain and its colonies, is New Zealand's founding immigration policy document. Maori are not generally anti-immigration, but there is increasing concern that there are no official channels for addressing their interests in the broad area of population policy, including immigration. The New Zealand First Party, which does have an anti-immigration policy, is led by a Maori, Winston Peters. The party did not have wide electoral support amongst Maori voters in the recent national elections.

New Zealand's governments have generally had quite explicit proactive immigration policies since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. At several times during the 20th century the New Zealand government subsidized the costs of immigration, especially for people from the United Kingdom and, for a period between 1947 and 1970, from the Netherlands. Since the 1970s there has not been any direct subsidization of immigration despite the emergence of a strong cyclical pattern of overall net gains and losses to New Zealand's population through international migration. This shift from regular net gains to increasingly sharp fluctuations in gains and losses has contributed to the politicization of both immigration into New Zealand, as well as the emigration of New Zealanders to Australia.

Migration System, 1970-2002

In the early 1970s the predominant immigrant flows to New Zealand were from the United Kingdom, Australia, countries in Europe, and some neighboring Pacific Island groups. High levels of immigration between 1971 and 1974, especially from the United Kingdom and some Pacific Island countries, encouraged the New Zealand government to introduce stricter controls over entry in 1974, especially for British citizens. This was also the time of the infamous "dawn raids" on Pacific Islanders in Auckland — raids to identify overstayers for deportation. It was much easier to focus attention on potential "brown" overstayers from the Cook Islands, Fiji, Niue, Samoa, and Tonga than to try to find "white" overstayers from the UK and Europe.

Ties to Australia

Under a bilateral agreement known as the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement, citizens of New Zealand can move without restriction to Australia and Australian citizens can enter and reside in New Zealand without visas or permits. Until 1964 the balance of migration between the two countries tended to favor New Zealand. However, from the mid-1960s, Australia has assumed increasing significance as a destination for New Zealanders. In the late 1970s, extensive emigration of New Zealand residents to Australia during the economic recession associated with the international oil crisis began to raise some concerns in Australia about the "costs" of unrestricted immigration from New Zealand.

At the time of Australia's population census in October 2001, 356,000 people born in New Zealand were resident in Australia — the equivalent of 1.9 percent of the total population in Australia. People born in Australia totaled 56,300 in New Zealand's census of March 2001 — the equivalent of 1.5 percent of the total population of New Zealand. The comparative parity in shares of population born in the neighboring country across the Tasman Sea is rather misleading, however. Many of the recent Australia-born immigrants to New Zealand are the children of New Zealanders who had been living in Australia for many years and who returned to New Zealand during the 1980s and 1990s.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s emigration of New Zealanders to Australia again began to cause concern in Australia and contributed to the politicization of the immigration debate in that country. It was not really concern about the numbers per se; rather it was the ethnic mix, especially the Maori, Pacific, and Asian components, and a concern that increasing numbers of New Zealanders were freeloading on Australia's welfare system. During the early 1990s there was serious assessment of the possibility of a common immigration and customs border for Australia and New Zealand, but this policy debate went nowhere largely thanks to New Zealand's visa-waiver treaties. Australia has no visa-waiver arrangements with any country other than New Zealand; citizens of all other countries must get visas before traveling to Australia.

In the late 1990s increasing trans-Tasman migration of New Zealanders (including many recent immigrants who had gained New Zealand citizenship) contributed to a decision in 2001 by the Australian government to change the basis on which New Zealand citizens would be entitled to welfare benefits while residing in Australia. There is still no restriction on the entry of New Zealanders, or their right to seek work in Australia. But if they wish to gain the same rights to welfare support as Australian citizens and permanent residents approved under Australia's immigration policy, they must apply for and qualify for entry under that policy. The New Zealand government has not placed the same restrictions on Australian citizens in New Zealand — they remain eligible for all of the benefits available to New Zealanders and permanent residents in New Zealand.

Another significant policy difference between New Zealand and Australia that emerged in 2001 was the response to the resettlement of a group of asylum seekers from the Middle East and Afghanistan. These asylum seekers were picked up (at the Australian government's request) by the Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, while trying to reach Australia from Indonesia. The New Zealand government accepted 150 of the Tampa refugees who had been temporarily housed on the central Pacific coral island of Nauru while their refugee status was assessed by UNHCR. The Australian government was determined that none of these "boat people" would be allowed to land in Australia.

Asia-Pacific Connection

Island counties in the eastern Pacific became an important source of unskilled labor for New Zealand's rural sector as well as the "dirty" manufacturing industries in the 1950s and 1960s. Increasing numbers of islanders seeking work in New Zealand stayed on in the country, and by the time of the 2001 census there were 230,000 people identifying with Pacific ethnicities resident in New Zealand. Pacific peoples (as they are known in the census) comprise six percent of New Zealand's population and, in 2001, around 60 percent had been born in New Zealand.

During the early 1980s concerns about low levels of immigration into New Zealand led to a major review of immigration policy and legislation, which was completed in 1986 and enacted in 1987. Before this review, which introduced for the first time an immigration policy that did not discriminate explicitly on the basis of source country, New Zealand had a "traditional source country" preference as the cornerstone of its immigration policy. In 1986, New Zealand's immigration policy was brought into line with policies in Australia, Canada, and the United States, which had no specific source country preferences. Between 1986 and 1990 business immigrants from countries in Asia (Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan especially) became an explicit focus of New Zealand's immigration policy for the first time.

During the early 1990s immigration into New Zealand from Asia, especially from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Republic of Korea, increased sharply following the introduction of a points-based selection system in 1991. It was this immigration that gave New Zealand First its "Asian invasion" slogan for the 1996 national elections. Although immigration from Asia fell back significantly after the Asian economic crisis in 1997, and during the late 1990s generally because of slow economic growth in New Zealand, it picked up again significantly in 2001. At the time of the 2001 census there were 237,000 people who identified with Asian ethnicities — the equivalent of just over six percent of the total New Zealand population. Seventy percent of the Asian ethnic population resident in New Zealand in 2001 had been born in countries in Asia.

During the year ended June 2002, the New Zealand Immigration Service approved entry for just under 53,000 new residents. Of these, 8,700 were Chinese and 8,400 were Indians — well above the third placed United Kingdom (6,600 approvals for residence) and fourth placed South Africa (4,300). Just over half (54 percent) of all approvals were for people who were citizens of countries in Asia. In addition to the approvals for residence, there were 64,000 approvals for work permits (37 percent granted to citizens of countries in Asia) and 78,000 approvals for student visas/permits (82 percent granted to citizens of countries in Asia). Given that the great majority of immigrants, temporary workers, and international students from Asia reside in Auckland, it is not surprising that this population component has become an increasingly visible target for anti-immigration political and public comment in New Zealand's largest city.

Contemporary Issues

The politicization of immigration in New Zealand has contributed to a growing public ambivalence about immigration and its contribution to the development of New Zealand's society and economy. Briefing papers prepared for the recently re-elected Labor government signal a number of concerns about current levels of immigration in general and the impact of immigration on Auckland's society and economy in particular. Minister of Immigration Lianne Dalziel has indicated that several aspects of the current policy, in addition to the level of English required by prospective residents, will be reviewed over the next few months.

Notwithstanding this ambivalence, there seems to be clear recognition and acceptance that New Zealand society is going to become more diverse in terms of ethnic and cultural groups over the next 20 years. Immigration will play a major part in this diversification of communities, especially immigration from countries in Asia. Fortunately, there seems to be a broad consensus among the main political parties as well as many of the minor ones that this is not something to be feared or resisted at all costs. In this regard, there appears to be some consensus of party view (excluding the position adopted by New Zealand First) that continued immigration at or above present levels will produce positive outcomes for the country's economy and society.

In part this approach to immigration policy reflects the long-standing culture of international migration into and out of New Zealand. It also reflects increasing recognition by policy makers that the root causes of immigration lie largely beyond their reach in the forces of the global economy. Likewise, the protection of human rights constrains the ability of the New Zealand government to respond to the racial and ethnic concerns of voters and to impose harshly restrictive measures on immigrants or their dependents. What is perhaps significant about the current discourse is a genuine concern among some politicians, journalists, and academics to ensure that the public is better informed about international migration in New Zealand before the immigration debate becomes dominated by a destructive, xenophobic rhetoric.


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