Asian migration and settlement: the national context

This section considers the patterns of migration from Asia to New Zealand. It starts with a discussion of permanent residence migration, the form of immigration usually considered to have the greatest long-term impacts on both migrants and the host society. It then discusses other forms of migration that have become increasingly important in recent years, including student migration, the arrival of workers on short- to medium-term visas, and humanitarian immigration. The last has been a feature of New Zealand’s immigration programme for many years, leading to the establishment of significant refugee populations with Asian origins.

Permanent residence trends

The Immigration Act 1987 signalled a turning point in New Zealand’s migration history. While earlier immigration policy had been based on ‘preferred country of origin’, the new Act prioritised migrants’ particular characteristics, especially age, education level, work experience and the ability to bring capital investment into New Zealand. In 1991 a points system was implemented, which quantified these characteristics.

These changes have led to much greater diversity in migrants’ countries of origin. While the United Kingdom and Pacific countries have remained significant, the countries of Asia have become important new migrant sources.

Figures 1 and 2 show the number of permanent residence approvals for migrants from the countries of East Asia and South and Southeast Asia from April 1987 to March 2013 (‘March years’). It is notable that the trend of each country relates to changes in New Zealand’s immigration policy and overall economic, social and political circumstances, as well as changes in the country of origin – seen, for example, in the sharp increase in migrants from Hong Kong leading up to its reintegration with the Peoples’ Republic of China (hereafter China), and the sudden increase from Taiwan when political tensions increased with the China in the mid-1990s. More generally, liberalised regimes governing the movement of people and capital (including China’s) have affected the number of migrants to New Zealand.

This increase in migrant numbers from Asian countries in the early 1990s paralleled two developments: increased economic, political and cultural connections between New Zealand and Asia; and the establishment of the Asia New Zealand Foundation in 1994 (originally as the Asia 2000 Foundation), with the goal of increasing New Zealanders’ awareness and knowledge of Asia.

Since the last Asia New Zealand Foundation report on Asian Auckland, published after the 2006 Census,1 there have been some notable changes in immigration trends.

The number of permanent residence migrations from the two largest Asian countries of origin, China and India, have never returned to the peak seen in the earlier part of the decade, but have fluctuated around an average of 6,000 and 4,000 a year respectively. The Philippines has been the only country with a significant increase since 2006, rising to between 3,000 and 4,000 per year. This has been partly facilitated by ‘work to residence’ schemes, which have become more important in this time.

Figure 1. Number of permanent residence approvals from selected North Asian countries 1987-2013 (March years)

Figure 01

Data source: Immigration New Zealand

Figure 2. Number of permanent residence approvals from selected South and Southeast Asian countries 1987-2013 (March years)

Figure 02

Data source: Immigration New Zealand

As is the case in other migrant settlement countries, ‘permanent residence’ migrants in New Zealand are not always permanent. Immigration New Zealand data suggests that about 28 percent of all permanent residence migrants arriving between 1998 and 2011 had left New Zealand for six months or more by the end of 2011.2 Among Asian migrants this number varied between countries of origin, with China as high as 40 percent and India at about 32 percent. Many of the ‘outmigrants’ from China had come in the ‘Investor’ category, with much lower rates among those who had originally arrived on work or student visas. The greatest number of outmigrants from India had come in the ‘Capped Family Stream’, with a rate of only 18 percent for those who had come on work or student visas.3

Table 1 shows the outcomes of immigration trends between the 2006 and 2013 censuses. Asian countries of origin that increased are shown in red (bolded) and those that decreased are shown in blue (bolded). In absolute terms, the largest increase was of about 24,000 from India, a proportionate increase of 55 percent. Close behind, at about 22,000, were the additional number born in The Philippines – the greatest proportionate increase of any country at 144 percent. The significant increase of about 15,000 in those born in Fiji (not an Asian country) is important because most of these new migrants were of Indo-Fijian origin.

The next largest increase from Asian countries was from China, with a net gain of about 11,000 people between the censuses; however, this represented an increase of only about 14 percent. Other Asian countries with increases of 1,000 people or more were, in rank order, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. In proportionate terms there were increases of 10 percent or more from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Vietnam, Thailand, Afghanistan, Malaysia, Cambodia and Singapore. For each of these there are country-specific explanations related to political and economic conditions.

As shown in Table 1, several Asian countries of origin showed a decrease in New Zealand resident populations between 2006 and 2013. The most notable was South Korea, which declined by about 2,200 people as a result of both relatively low levels of immigration (as shown in Figure 1), on-migration to other countries and returns to Korea.4 The decline in populations from Taiwan and Hong Kong also appeared to result from return migration.

Table 1. Forty largest usually resident populations in New Zealand

Table 1

Other Migrations: Workers, Refugees, Students


There is a great variety of work visas besides those related to permanent residence. Most allow a migrant to stay and work in New Zealand for up to three years, with the exception of the ‘Essential Skills’ visa, which may allow residence for up to five years. Most short- to medium-term visas require the applicant to have a high level of education or skill, have a particular skill in demand in New Zealand, or be the partner of someone qualifying in another category. They require a minimum level of English language competency and in many cases a job offer in New Zealand, although a more general ‘work search’ visa is possible for those with high levels of education or skill.

Most countries of Asia have supplied work migrants in recent years, with an annual average of about 65,000 qualifying a year. Between July 2008 and June 2013 India was the largest source of short- to medium-term work migrants, with an average of 18,100 per year, followed by China (16,027), the Philippines (8,225), South Korea (5,722), Japan (4,659), Malaysia (3,700), Thailand (2,899), Indonesia (1,561), Taiwan (1,273) and Sri Lanka (1,173).5

The ‘Working Holiday’ visa is targeted at people aged 18 to 30 coming to New Zealand primarily for a holiday, with work or study as a secondary purpose. For most Asian source countries people on this visa are allowed to stay up to 12 months, with the exceptions of Malaysia and Singapore where the maximum is six months. Between July 2008 and June 2013 the average annual number of Working Holiday visa approvals was: Korea 1,862, Japan 1,774, Malaysia 1,196, China 951, Taiwan 604, Hong Kong 368, Thailand 93, Singapore 91 and Vietnam 20. (Note applicants from Vietnam and The Philippines became eligible in 2013.)


New Zealand’s refugee quota through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, of about 750 a year, has contributed to new Asian populations in New Zealand. Since the previous census in 2006, the largest number of refugees by nationality were from Myanmar, with 1,952 Burmese refugees arriving between July 2006 and June 2013. The next largest group were 774 Bhutanese, mostly of Nepalese ethnicity and arriving mainly from Nepal following their expulsion from Bhutan. The fourth largest group were 453 of Afghani nationality, a result of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan (large numbers had also arrived in the years before the 2006 census).

It is not possible to determine from the census how many of these refugees settled in Auckland, as immigration status is not counted. However, considering the locations during the census of these national populations, which are mostly made up of refugees, it can be inferred that about half of the Burmese, two-thirds of the Afghani and almost none of the Bhutanese refugees settled in Auckland. Most of the Bhutanese refugees were settled in Palmerston North, with other communities in Christchurch and Nelson.6


New Zealand has promoted itself as a destination for international students since the 1990s. From the mid-1990s the number of international students rose steadily, peaking in 2002 at about 120,000 before declining to average about 94,000 per year in the following decade. This level was maintained from 2006 to 2013, with an annual average of 56,000 originating in Asian countries.7

China has consistently been the largest source of international students, although a significant decline occurred between 2006 and 2008, followed by a modest reversal (Figure 3). The other largest Asian sources of international fee-paying students in recent years have been South Korea, Japan and India, with the first two of these declining recently and the latter increasing significantly (Figure 3).

Within these four countries of origin there have been considerable variations in the types of education being undertaken; in 2013 35 percent of the Korean students were in primary and secondary education, Japan 22 percent, China 15 percent and India less than one percent. The largest proportion of international students was in private training establishments, with some variations between countries: India 66 percent, Japan 49 percent, China 43 percent and Korea 41 percent. India had the highest proportion in polytechnics at 25 percent, followed by China 15 percent, Japan seven percent and South Korea six percent. Auckland was the main centre of international education, with 60 percent of all international students located there.

The political context of immigration

Although there seems to have been consensus among most political parties in recent years that immigration is important to the country’s future, there is still some debate about immigration issues. The topic has entered the public discourse through the media and politicians’ statements, with debates on subjects including the net migration level and its impacts, especially on the price of housing in Auckland.

In the year to mid-2014 New Zealand had close to 100,000 permanent and long-term arrivals, resulting in the highest net migration level for a decade (about +38,000). This led to calls to ‘cut immigration’, implying a reduction in the targets for permanent residence. However, the reality was that permanent residence levels had declined slightly in the preceding three years, then returned to a level similar to the average for the previous decade. The increased net migration was a result of two factors: the Australian economic downturn resulting in fewer New Zealanders heading there and more coming back; and the increase in short- to medium-term work visas, especially in relation to the post-earthquake Christchurch rebuild and young people entering on Working Holiday visas.

The public debate, however, illustrates that immigration remains a sensitive issue, despite the sense that politicians, and New Zealanders more generally, have increasingly accepted that significant benefits result from immigration and increased diversity. In comparison with reactions to high immigration levels in the mid-1990s, the public and political responses 20 years later do not seem to have generated the same level of negativity.

Figure 3. Number of international fee-paying students in New Zealand, by Asian country of origin, 2006 to 2013

Figure 03

Data source: Immigration New Zealand


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