Laos, in South-East Asia, is bordered by Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma) and China. Its 600-year-old monarchy was replaced in 1975 by the Communist Pathet Lao government, beginning a 20-year rule of terror. Between 1975 and 1995 the Pathet Lao killed over 300,000 civilians. Victims included the Royal Lao family, soldiers and about 46,000 officials under the former Royal Lao government.
Atrocities included chemical bombing, torture, genocide, massacres and executions. These horrors became known as the Killing Fields of Laos, and precipitated the refugee crisis. To accommodate the outpouring from Laos, camps were set up in Thailand, where some 500,000 civilians sought refuge. Many remained in these camps for a number of years before being resettled in other countries.
The first group of Laotian refugees arrived in New Zealand in 1977, when the government approved an intake of 70 families from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Laotians were selected from the camps in Thailand.
More arrived when the government announced it would accept a further 1,800 South-East Asian refugees in the 18-month period after January 1980. Between 1979 and 1982, New Zealand resettled a total of 239 displaced Laotians.
When Laotian refugees began to arrive in numbers, the government policy was to scatter them in towns throughout the country to help assimilation. In the early 1980s Rangiora, on the Canterbury Plains, was one such town:
‘Among the fourteen Laos settled at Rangiora were two medical students, a taxi driver/mechanic, two watchmakers, a gold and silversmith, a schoolteacher and a dressmaker. One resettlement organiser told me most were in factory jobs, but only until they had enough money to get back to the jobs they had had back home. He predicted it wouldn’t be long. They were the Dutch of Asia, incredibly industrious.’ 1
On arrival, refugees spent four to six weeks at the Māngere Refugee Reception Centre in Auckland. During their stay they were given accommodation, a medical check-up, and basic English lessons. As they moved out into the community, volunteer sponsors provided ongoing support to help overcome resettlement problems.
Over 90% settled in the North Island, mainly in Auckland, Hamilton, Napier and Wellington. In the 1991 census, Auckland was home to over half of the Laotian population, with about one-fifth living in Wellington.
Between 1986 and 2006 New Zealand’s Laotian population almost tripled, from 585 to 1,344. In recent years, as political and social conditions in Laos have changed, the number of Laotians entering the country as refugees has fallen. However, some continue to settle in New Zealand under the family reunification scheme. The 2013 population was 1,374.
The Laotian population has integrated well, while still retaining their cultural identity. But the resettlement process was difficult. Dealing with the loss of family members and adapting to a new lifestyle was compounded by insufficient English skills. As a result, many had to take unsatisfactory employment, and suffered feelings of isolation and distress. Most were employed in manual or processing jobs, found with the help of relatives, friends and sponsors. Of those who had obtained professional qualifications in their home country, few were able to find employment equal to their expertise.
Today, Laotians continue to work predominantly in blue-collar occupations. In 2013, 62% of those employed were trade workers, labourers or plant and machine operators and drivers.
Most New Zealand Laotians are Theravada Buddhist. Community associations such as the Xao Lao Association in Wellington and the Wat Lao Association in Auckland have worked together to bring monks to New Zealand from Laos. Temples have been established in the main North Island cities, and provide a place for both meditation and social interaction.
Community associations play an important part in maintaining not only religious, but also cultural identity.
They have formed traditional dancing groups which perform during the Lunar New Year, and participate in events in the wider community, such as the Auckland International Cultural Festival. These social networks have played a significant role in helping immigrants cope by providing mutual support throughout resettlement.
The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Laos.
In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.
Asian New Zealanders. Wellington: Statistics New Zealand, 1995.
Liev, Man Hau. ‘Refugees from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.’ In Immigration and national identity in New Zealand, edited by Stuart William Greif, 99–132. Palmerston North: Dunmore, 1995.
South East Asian migrants in New Zealand: educational provision. Wellington: Dept of Education, 1982.