Story: Immigration regulation

Page 1. Immigration policy: overview

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Who has been allowed to settle in New Zealand since 1840? Over the years, laws and regulations have been used to restrict or prevent the entry of ‘undesirable’ individuals or groups. Making New Zealand British and keeping the country white were the goals of immigration policy until the early 1970s. People from Britain have been actively recruited, while people perceived as ‘different’ have been kept out.

Strong imperial sentiments in the colonial period, and views about race through the 19th and much of the 20th centuries largely explain the purpose of New Zealand’s immigration restrictions. But alongside these narrow-minded, racist attitudes, more inclusive views of the peopling of New Zealand have consistently been expressed.

The Treaty of Waitangi and immigration

In 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi acknowledged that British subjects were already in New Zealand. Implicit in Māori agreement to the treaty was that more immigrants would come from the United Kingdom, Europe and Australia. Some Māori have argued that their ancestors agreed to allow immigration only from the countries named in the preamble to the treaty, and that regulation of immigration from other places is a matter that should be discussed with them as a treaty partner.

Māori views of immigrants

In the early 1800s Māori had mixed views about the arrival of Europeans. Chiefs would assess the possible benefits these newcomers might bring in terms of trade, tools and weapons. Initially, the Ngāpuhi chief Hongi Hika was in favour of British missionaries settling in New Zealand. This was not for religious reasons, but because he knew that an association with missionaries would increase his influence on other Europeans, bringing greater opportunities to trade for tools and weapons.

A developing colony

In the 19th century, as a colony of the British Empire, New Zealand struggled for the right to curb Asian immigration. Concerned about the impact of these restrictions on its own interests in China, India and Japan, the British government refused to assent to New Zealand’s Asiatic Restriction Bill of 1896. Changes in immigration laws and regulations over the years also highlight the close links between immigration controls and economic strategies.

Change from the 1970s

Until 1961 (in law) and 1974 (in practice), British subjects were allowed free entry into New Zealand. Immigrants from Asia faced restrictions from the late 19th century. Entry of non-British Europeans was restricted from the early 20th century.

Beginning in 1974, the criteria for entry to New Zealand gradually changed from race or nationality to merits and skills. The 1987 Immigration Act finally eliminated both the discrimination against some races and nationalities, and the preferences for others. But the numbers of migrants and the pre-requisites they had to meet remained tightly regulated.

How to cite this page:

Ann Beaglehole, 'Immigration regulation - Immigration policy: overview', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 May 2021)

Story by Ann Beaglehole, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 18 Aug 2015