The election of a Labour government in 1935 did not improve prospects for aspiring immigrants. Loyal to its working-class roots, the Labour Party was suspicious of immigration. Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage was blunt: ‘We are not going to pay anyone’s fare to come to New Zealand … until we have solved our economic problems.’ 1 The flow of paying immigrants was just reviving when war broke out in 1939.
Once more, war disrupted international travel, and the crisis raised immigration issues. Even before shots were fired, the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany invited a response from countries around the world. Yet under the Immigration Restriction Amendment Act 1931 European aliens could only enter if they had guaranteed employment, and some capital or skills which would allow them to be rehabilitated without affecting New Zealand residents. Although thousands applied for refuge in New Zealand, only about 1,100 escapees from Hitler, mostly Jews, were accepted (many fewer on a per capita basis than the numbers taken in by the United States and Britain). Of those who came, many made distinguished contributions to cultural and business life.
For a few of those disrupted by war, New Zealand was a haven. In 1940, 566 children were shipped from England to escape the German air raids. Some of them stayed on. Then in 1944, to great public fanfare, 837 Polish refugees arrived in Wellington and were sent to a camp at Pahīatua. The majority were orphaned children or teenagers, and many eventually settled around Wellington after the war.
The perils of war, and the divisive impact of post-war Russian control of Eastern Europe made millions homeless in the late 1940s. The International Refugee Organisation, established in 1946, eventually resettled a million people worldwide before disbanding in 1952. Between 1949 and 1952 New Zealand received a number of refugees – almost 300 Yugoslavs; about 1,000 Greeks mostly displaced from Romania, Bulgaria or Turkey; and another 700 Poles.
With the wartime alliance with China, the government lifted some restrictions against the Chinese. Between 1931 and 1935 only 29 Asians had been allowed entry, but in the decade after the Second World War over 2,500 settled.
These small concessions to diversity could not alter the fact that by 1951 the proportion of immigrants in the New Zealand population had reached its lowest point since 1840. And of those who were foreign-born, over 85% were from either Great Britain or Australia.