Rising Asian immigration highlights New Zealand’s changing demographics

The face of Aotearoa – New Zealand – is changing. How? And why? AAP/Sarah Robson

Historically, geographically, culturally – there are many points of comparison between Australia and its neighbour to the east, New Zealand. But there are notable differences.

This week, The Conversation, in conjunction with Griffith REVIEW, will publish essays examining issues of marginality and modernity. We’ll run articles on the arts, the environment; on the economic and emotional ties that bind people to land, and land to the rest of humanity. We’ll take a fresh look at the 21st century world that exists just beyond the ditch.


The release of the initial 2013 Census data has highlighted some interesting – and intriguing – trends for New Zealand. Like Canada and Australia, there is a significant Indigenous population and an immigration policy framework that is designed to recruit permanent residents who are defined by the economic and labour market requirements of the country.

Since the adoption of these immigration policies in 1986-87, the impacts on the demographic shape of New Zealand have been profound. Initially, the possibilities were far from clear and this was combined with a very negative political response. In the 1990s, the sources of immigrants shifted from the old (the UK and Ireland essentially) to the new: Asia. The early arrivals came from Hong Kong, Korea and Taiwan.

Even this modest shift resulted in the establishment of the New Zealand First political party, concerned at the “Asianisation” of the country. These anti-immigrant politics were very apparent in the 1996 general election, where the party received a swing of close to 5%.

There was a brief hiatus in the late 1990s as various Asian countries experienced an economic downturn and potential immigrants were put off by the negativity of local politicians.

But this changed dramatically after 2000. The new migrants were to come from China and India principally, and from a range of other countries in Africa and the Middle East. The earlier arrivals from other parts of the Pacific were soon dwarfed by the size of these new immigration flows, especially from Asia.

For many of the years after 2000, New Zealand has experienced some of the highest per capita immigration flows (sometimes the highest) of permanent residents in the OECD. The same can be said for the temporary arrivals.

The size of this growth and the immigrant dependency of New Zealand is easily shown in the 2013 Census results. A little over one-quarter of all New Zealand residents have been born overseas, but the growth in the size of Asian communities – both in terms of birthplace and ethnicity – is the most obvious factor.

In 2001, the largest overseas birthplace population was from the UK and Ireland. In 2013, at 32%, Asian communities make up the largest group of overseas-born people in New Zealand, replacing the British and Irish, who now make up a little more than one-quarter of this overseas-born population.

In terms of New Zealand national population, Asian-born people almost doubled in size from 6.6% in 2001 to 11.8% in 2013, or 471,700 people. This compares with 295,900 for Pacific Island populations.

Maori remain a significant proportion of the population at 15% (598,600 people) and an important consideration in terms of ethnic identity and group rights. But an important moment will come in the next decade or so when Asian people begin to outnumber Maori in New Zealand.

These trends are particularly apparent in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, where 40% of all residents have been born overseas. Asians (in terms of ethnicity) comprise 23% of all residents, as compared with about 12% Maori people and 14% Pacific Islanders.

What is happening nationally – and in Auckland as the key gateway city – have changed a number of other features of New Zealand. Ageing is dominated by European (Pakeha) populations (a median age of 41 years), while Asian arrivals and communities have a lower median age (30.6). However, this does not compare with Maori (median age 24) and Pacific Islander (median age 22) populations. School-age populations tend to see a significant Polynesian presence.

The number who identify with orthodox Christian religions continues to decline, but those who are Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus or Muslims are growing. Maori is the second most-spoken language after English, followed by Samoan, Hindi and Mandarin.

12% of people in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, identify as Maori. AAP/Dave Hunt

There are some intriguing aspects to these post-2000 changes. The first is that in many rankings of the most diverse countries or cities, New Zealand seldom gets a mention. And yet, on most measures, it is super-diverse. In every year since 2000, New Zealand has attracted almost double the number of arrivals compared to the national target (45,000, or 1% of the national population).

But there are also the emigrants, especially to Australia. Since the beginning of the global financial crisis in 2008, the numbers heading across the Tasman have peaked at significant levels (54,000 in one year alone), yet the numbers have declined significantly since late 2013. The result is that the New Zealand global diaspora is second only to the Irish.

But equally intriguing are the cultural politics of New Zealand. While anti-immigrant politics were readily apparent in the mid-1990s, they have all but evaporated after 2000. There is a multi-party acceptance that immigration is part of the New Zealand story in the early 21st century.

However, there is one key ethnic-cultural tension point. During the last three decades of the 20th century, a lot of effort and energy went into discussing Indigenous rights and recognition. By 2000, the country had an extensive (albeit incomplete) bicultural policy framework. But what of multiculturalism? It is unclear what New Zealand will develop, especially alongside biculturalism.

Opinion polling indicates that while most New Zealanders are much more positive about immigration and Asians in particular, the same cannot be said of the Maori polled.

Colonial New Zealand was largely about migration from the UK and Ireland, the management and control of a significant Indigenous population and the exclusion of certain groups, notably Asians. A visitor to modern-day New Zealand would be struck by the public recognition of Maori, the diversity of the major cities (especially Auckland), and the relatively low-key approach to this diversity.

These provide some interesting points of comparison with Australia, including the fact that the nature of New Zealand diversity has evolved rapidly with some similar – and different – outcomes.


The co-editors of Griffith REVIEW: Pacific Highways, Lloyd Jones and Julianne Schultz, and contributors will be discussing all things New Zealand at The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne (Feb 26), National Library of Australia in Canberra (Feb 27), Adelaide Writers Week (Mar 3) and New Zealand Writers Week (Mar 12).

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