Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyOctober 12, 2021

What Covid-19 has revealed about the New Zealand diaspora

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

For the first time in a very long time, more New Zealanders are coming home than are leaving. Paul Spoonley looks at what else we can learn about our diaspora through our pandemic response. 

Christmas is coming – which would normally mean a surge in arrivals from overseas. But not this year. The chokepoint that is MIQ will see to that. If nothing else, Covid and our response, especially in limiting travel in and out of the country, has confirmed how dispersed and mobile we are as a country.

New Zealand’s migration and travel history shows that we have always been very internationally mobile, even when transport systems were slow and infrequent. Air travel in the 1960s, combined with the baby boomer interest in participating in an OE, saw the growth of the New Zealand diaspora.

This was expanded in the 1970s, when the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement ensured equal and easy access to Australia for New Zealanders. Despite the unwinding of these rights from the John Howard government in the early 2000s to the present day, we have moved in large numbers to Australia. In 2012, 53,800 people left in that one year to live there permanently. (In terms of migration figures, “permanently” means living somewhere more than 12 months.)

There are probably around 1 million New Zealand citizens and their children currently living in another country, with 600,000 of those resident in Australia. This diaspora is second in size to that of Ireland among the countries of the OECD. There are not many New Zealand families who do not have some of their members living in another country. 

Photo: Getty Images

But we are not good at valuing this diaspora. New Zealand does not have a diaspora management plan, nor does there appear to be much interest at either a government or community level in developing one. And we do not seem to care much about those who live elsewhere.

This has become very apparent when we moved to restrict arrivals to New Zealand during the pandemic. The long-distance nature of our families and communities has meant a lot of distress and anger. Family gatherings at Christmas will be missing most of their overseas members, and the festivities will be forced to move to Zoom. 

Being here as well as there

There is another side to this story. A lot of New Zealand residents were born in another country – and so there is another rather large group who will also struggle to get together at Christmas.

Our overseas-born population at 27% (1.35 million people) is one of the highest anywhere among high income countries. The birthplaces of these New Zealanders still reflects our colonial history, with the largest group having been born in the UK. Out of every 100 New Zealanders, five were born in the UK, three were born in China, another three in India, two born in South Africa and the same number in Australia.

We have just experienced the highest net inflow of migrants in the 2017-2020 period, with the year to June 2020 providing easily the highest net gain ever in our history. We have become much more diverse in terms of our birthplace, our ethnicity and our faith – and much more transnational in terms of personal and community links with one homeland or another.

On top of that are the 220,000 who were here on temporary work visas – and another 88,000 on study visas – when we went into lockdown. As Bernard Hickey noted, the fact that we had not dealt equitably with these temporary residents was in danger of making us the “Dubai of the Pacific”. It is an interesting recent shift to allow those remaining (all 165,000 of them) to apply for residency.

Again, the MIQ situation means that most are cut-off from their homeland and their families for the interim.


Where did you holiday this year?

A lot of cross-border travel involves either our connections with the New Zealand diaspora or the homelands of the overseas born. But both are easily exceeded by New Zealanders travelling for holiday reasons, or those coming here as tourists.

In 2019, there were a total of 7 million arrivals and an equal number of departures. For every person who travelled to visit family and friends (1 million), double that amount went for a holiday. Business travel involved 340,000 trips.

The most common destination – for all sorts of travel – was Australia (1.5 million trips), followed by China (500,000), the USA (360,000) and the UK (230,000). The growing significance of Asia, and especially China, in these travel statistics is interesting and marks a new stage in New Zealand’s global connectivity.

Then there are the tourists, almost 4 million of them in 2019. That is a lot of people coming to see Rotorua or Queenstown. These short-term trips to see relatives or for a holiday have now evaporated. Apart from impacting on the tourist or international education dollar, it also has impacted on local labour supply. 

The Recognised Seasonal Employment scheme is important for the horticulture sector in terms of picking and packing. And it looks as though we will see a return to the earlier (2019-20) cap of 14,400 this year, beginning with the recent sans-MIQ arrival of RSE workers from Vanuatu – with the only requisite being that they have had one vaccine shot.

But previously, this number was exceeded by the Working Holiday Visa Holidays, the backpackers. They will not be arriving soon, so there will still be a shortfall in seasonal labour this year.

Apart from the opportunity for those who are on short-term visas and who are already here to apply for residency later this year, there will be a cautious opening of opportunities for other potential migrants to apply to come to New Zealand. Some of these opportunities will emerge after the Productivity Commission has offered its evidence in April 2022. 

However, non-essential travel will probably emerge for New Zealanders, suitably vaccinated and with all the appropriate tests, early in 2022. But when this will extend to others, such as tourists or those in homelands wanting to come to New Zealand to see family and friends, remains another matter.

Closed borders?

Despite the media and op-ed rhetoric, the borders are not completely closed. There are between 40,000 and 50,000 arrivals and a similar number of departures occurring each year under the pandemic. Not everyone is locked out – or locked in. But what is interesting is how much more significantly New Zealanders feature in these figures. 

About three-quarters of those arriving are New Zealand residents or citizens. Which means, for the first time in a very long time, New Zealanders provide the net migrant gain. There has been a net gain of 14,300 New Zealanders and a net loss of 9,900 non-New Zealanders from July 2020-July 2021. For the last decade, the number of New Zealanders departing to live in another country exceeded those arriving back in the country.

The 2021 figures mark a significant change. But it is not because more New Zealanders are returning. In fact, the numbers arriving have dropped by more than a third. It is due to the fact that those leaving have dropped by an even greater amount. The OE has been suspended, for the moment. 

Our country has gone from the highest ever inward flow of both permanent and temporary migrants, to some of the lowest migrant numbers in long, long time. And international travel for leisure, or to visit family, has all but gone.

The result is that we now have families who will not see one another in person for at least two years, possibly more. This has become an ongoing media theme and the source of much discontent. The diaspora has not been feeling the love, which has not been helped by some harsh social media judgement.

Through this pandemic, our restricted border travel has revealed just how transnational and mobile we have become.

Keep going!