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Migrant and refugee organisations

by Mark Derby

Highland Games, Diwali, eisteddfods and White Sunday celebrations are some of the visible signs of migrant groups keeping their cultures alive in New Zealand. In the 19th century Scottish, Welsh, Irish and Chinese immigrants formed organisations to maintain their traditions and support their members. By the 21st century there was a huge range of migrant and refugee organisations.

Early migrant organisations

Migrants or refugees?

People from overseas settle in New Zealand as either migrants or refugees. Migrants choose to leave their homeland and move to a country of their choice. They are able to plan their travel and pack the possessions they want to take, and they can often arrange housing or work in their new country in advance.

Refugees do not choose to leave their homeland, but flee in response to a crisis. They have little choice about where to go and how to get there. They often have no time to pack possessions and may arrive in a new country without passports or local contacts of any kind.

Scottish, Irish and Welsh groups

One of the main reasons a group of migrants forms an organisation in their new country is to keep alive their own culture and traditions, and to maintain links with each other and their homeland. Scots, who made up a large proportion of early migrants, began holding Highland Games in Wellington in the 1840s.

The first organisation for Scottish migrants was formed in Dunedin on 12 August 1862, when a meeting of ‘about forty gentlemen’1 formed the Otago Caledonian Society (Caledonia is the Latin name for Scotland). It held night classes for members and an annual Highland Games. Other districts with large Scots populations did the same. Turakina, near Whanganui, has held its games since 1864, and Waipū in Northland has done so since 1871. The Waipū Caledonian Society not only organised the games but held regular dances, concerts and other events. In the early 1900s it acquired its own park as a venue for the games, and this remains an essential facility for the Waipū community.

Pipes and a wee dram

A keen participant in the 1848 Highland Games in Wellington was Donald McLean, who was born in the Scottish Highlands and later worked for the New Zealand government as a land purchase agent. He played the bagpipes at the games and afterwards was carried shoulder-high to Barrett’s Hotel for a whisky. McLean said it was ‘a sincere pleasure to meet so many people of the same land, the same descent and origin, met together to remember the sports of our parent land, and not forget them’.2

A further reason that migrants set up their own groups is to provide mutual support in their new home. The first Hibernian (from the Latin name for Ireland) Society was established in Greymouth in 1869 by Irish immigrants, mainly to help members in need. In 2018 it had 21 regional branches and offered members a variety of financial benefits.

The first Welsh society, the Cambrian Society of Canterbury, was set up in 1890 with the aims of maintaining traditional Welsh music and literature, encouraging immigration from Wales and helping society members to settle in New Zealand. It held its first eisteddfod (choral and poetry competition) in 1926. Welsh societies were formed in Wellington in 1907 and in Auckland in 1925.

Chinese groups

Several thousand Chinese migrated to the Otago goldfields in the late 1860s. They soon set up informal groups, based on their regions of origin, for mutual support. These lent money to impoverished and sick members and helped them return to China. The first formalised group was the Dunedin-based Cheong Shing Tong (昌善堂), set up in 1878 to organise the repatriation of bodies and exhumed bones.

By the 1900s the Chinese population was shifting north. In the major cities, social, commercial, cultural, sports and religious groups sprang up to meet the communities’ needs. Clan-based groups based on counties of origin played a major role in supporting members and new arrivals. The Poon Fah, Toishan, Kwongchew, Tung Jung and Seyip Associations, all established between 1916 and 1936, continue today.

Political groups were equally important. Some focused on politics in China. The first of these was the Chinese Reform Society (保皇會), set up in Wellington in the early 1900s. Others focused on New Zealand, like the Wellington Chinese Association formed in 1907 to advocate for the community in an era of strong anti-Chinese feeling and legislative restrictions. A descendant of this group, the New Zealand Chinese Association, had 14 regional branches in 2018.

Indian groups

Migrants from India had widely varying religious and ethnic traditions but set up combined organisations to promote their values and culture. In response to the racist propaganda of the White New Zealand League, the New Zealand Indian Central Association was formed in 1926 with branches in Auckland, Taumarunui and Wellington. In 2018 the association had a further seven regional branches and a number of affiliated organisations representing specific ethnic or religious groups, including the Probasee Bengalee Association, the Bangladesh New Zealand Friendship Society and the Pakistani Association.


Later migrant organisations

European groups

Migrant communities from many parts of continental Europe have lived in New Zealand since the 19th century, but their numbers increased from the late 1930s. Italians, Greeks, Yugoslavs, Germans and others formed new migrant organisations or expanded existing ones. The history of those groups often reflected political upheavals in their homelands.

The Goethe Society promotes German language and culture, while the Hellenic New Zealand Congress promotes the history, art, culture and language of the people of Greece and Cyprus. Club Garibaldi in Wellington, established in 1882 by the first Italian settlers in Wellington, fosters Italian culture and heritage.

The Wellington Yugo-Slav Club was formed in 1938. In the early 1990s war tore Yugoslavia apart and the club changed its name to the Dalmatian Club, since most members were from the Dalmatia region of the country. In 1991 Croatia (of which Dalmatia is a part) declared itself independent of the former Yugoslavia, and in 1996 the organisation’s name was changed again, to the Croatian Cultural Society.

Pacific Island groups

From the late 1950s numbers of migrants began to arrive from Pacific Island countries such as Western Samoa, Niue, the Cook Islands and Tonga. Some of them spoke little English, and most had come from a very different culture and society.

The first Pacific Islanders’ Congregational Church had been established in Newton, Auckland, in 1947. It was followed by another in Newtown, Wellington, in 1953 – and then by many more Pacific churches around the country as migrant numbers increased. These churches took the place of the villages the Pacific Islands people had left in their homelands, and met many social needs in addition to religious needs. People formed church-based groups to support one another in their new country.

Going with the flow

Young people of African origin set up Nileflow to explore and develop African–New Zealand identity and culture. The group’s members include refugees from Tanzania, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan, and migrants from the Caribbean and Europe who identify themselves as African. Nileflow member Brook Shiferaw was 11 when her father, a political activist, fled from the family home in Ethiopia. In 2008 Brook graduated from Auckland’s Elam art school. She said of the group’s name, ‘The Nile flows through several African countries. It’s a metaphor that African people should be going in the flow, in unity.’1

Asian and African groups

Although migrants from China and other Asian countries, and from Africa, have lived in New Zealand since the mid-19th century, their numbers greatly increased from the 1980s because of changes to immigration policy, which now assessed potential migrants against criteria of age, skills, education and capital rather than ethnicity. The migrants who arrived in this period were mainly urban professionals from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, China and India. There were also smaller numbers from several Middle Eastern and African countries.

As well as the difficulties faced by most migrants arriving in a new country with unfamiliar customs and language, recent Asian and African migrants sometimes experienced hostility and a lack of understanding from longer-term residents. To help overcome these problems of adjustment, a large number of support groups were formed, based around specific nationalities, ethnicities and religions, and also around larger regional groupings.

African migrants, for example, formed the Somali Friendship Society, the Oromo Community and the Islamic Ahlulbayt Foundation of New Zealand. They also set up pan-African clubs such as the African Association of Auckland, and the Africa Association of New Zealand in Wellington.

According to Steven Young, the national president of the New Zealand Chinese Association in 2010, most of the members were descended from immigrants to New Zealand three or four generations ago, nearly all from Guangdong province in southern China. ‘We are New Zealand-oriented and concerned with local matters such as implementing the Treaty of Waitangi. We conduct our meetings in English.’2

However, the Chinese who migrated to New Zealand after the 1980s came from all over China and were more concerned with issues such as discrimination and family reunification. In Wellington these recent migrants set up the New China Friendship Association, which held its meetings in the Mandarin language. The two associations worked alongside one another, but their different activities reflected the different concerns of their memberships.

Migrant women’s groups

Women migrants formed their own groups to address the special needs of women in an unfamiliar environment. The Shakti Asian Women’s Support Group was set up in Auckland in 1995 to deal with issues of domestic and family violence. It grew into a nationwide organisation, the Shakti Community Council. In the 21st century the council worked with thousands of families from Asian, African and Middle Eastern ethnic groups, and ran four refuges for women from these backgrounds.

Media organisations

In the 21st century ethnic and migrant groups communicated with each other and the rest of the population through a wide range of media. Specialist programmes such as Asia Downunder and Tagata Pasifika were broadcast weekly on national television.

More than 30 newspapers and magazines around the country targeted Asian readers alone. In 2009, 1,300 hours of ethnic radio programmes were broadcast each week in over 60 languages on 17 radio stations. Radio Tarana, established in 1996 to broadcast to Auckland’s Hindi-speaking Indian community, was New Zealand’s first full-time commercial ethnic radio station. The Pacific radio network Niu FM reached 85% of the Pacific population via stations from Whangārei to Invercargill.

The community directory of the Office of Ethnic Affairs listed more than 120 ethnic organisations in 2018, from the Afghan Association of New Zealand to Zimbabweans Canterbury.

    • New Zealand Herald, 15 February 2008, (last accessed 4 May 2010). Back
    • Email from Steven Young, 1 February 2010. Back

Refugee organisations

Polish groups

After the Second World War, immigrants displaced from their homelands in Europe arrived in New Zealand. These included hundreds of Polish children who had lost their parents, and others who had lost family members and needed support to settle in a new country. Most Polish migrants settled in or near Wellington, where they founded the Polish Association in 1948. Members saw themselves as an exile community hoping eventually to return to Poland. To preserve their language and customs they published a newsletter, Wiadomości Polskie, and ran Sunday schools to teach their children Polish. Other Polish associations were later formed around New Zealand.

National refugee organisations

In the early 21st century many organisations in different parts of the country cater to the needs of refugees generally or to particular refugee communities. The Refugee Council of New Zealand Inc. operates at a national level to provide advice and help to asylum-seekers and refugees, to influence strategic policy and to act as a lobby group for the implementation of the United Nations Convention on Refugees. It works closely with the United National Commissioner for Refugees, the New Zealand government and a variety of statutory and voluntary organisations.

Refugees are forced to relocate because of war, poverty or other trauma in their homeland. As a result, they often arrive in New Zealand with very few belongings or financial resources. Many have been traumatised by the circumstances that forced them to leave, and some have mental problems as a result. Refugee groups are often set up to deal with these and similar problems.

The main organisation providing mental health services to refugees is Refugees As Survivors New Zealand (RASNZ). As well as providing medical help, RASNZ has a team of community facilitators working with the Afghan, Burmese, Burundian, Iranian, Iraqi, Somalian and Sudanese communities. They run sport, road safety and other programmes to help refugees adjust to their new lives.

No camels

Ahmed Tani of Somalia says refugees from his country celebrate their homeland’s independence day in July with dancing in national costume and feasting. ‘In Somalia we eat camel stewed in water, but in New Zealand we eat lamb or goat. In my country a camel is also the most important gift for showing respect to another person, but here we have to give money instead.’1

Regional groups

Refugees may receive support from four regional refugee community groups – the Auckland Refugee Community Coalition, Hamilton Refugee Forum, ChangeMakers Refugee Forum (Wellington) and Canterbury Refugee Council. Each of these groups represents and provides support to specific refugee communities in its area. ChangeMakers, for example, represents the Afghani, Assyrian, Burmese, Cambodian, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Iraqi, Oromo, Somali, Rwandan, Sudanese, Ugandan and Zimbabwean communities in Wellington.

The four regional groups serve as liaison organisations between their local refugee communities and the government, consulting with the communities on the issues affecting them and helping them to understand official information. The regional bodies formed a National Refugee Network in 2010.

Local groups

A variety of local groups provide support to refugees. Ahmed Tani is chairperson of the Canterbury Refugee Council, which represents the local Afghan, Bhutanese, Eritrean, Ethiopian and Kurdish refugee communities, as well as his own community from Somalia. Each of those communities has its own local association, which both deals with the social issues of resettling refugees and celebrates their language, culture and traditional festivals. This organisation operates a drop-in centre and works to provide a strong voice for refugees, locally and nationally.

Quotas for refugees

New Zealand is one of 26 countries involved in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) resettlement programme. In the early 21st century, New Zealand’s annual refugee quota was 750. In the 2010s New Zealand accepted additional refugees from Syria in response to the civil war in that country. From 2020 the annual refugee quota will be doubled to 1500. All refugees entering New Zealand are referred by UNHCR and spend their first six weeks in the country at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre.

    • Phone interview with Ahmed Tani, 3 March 2010. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Mark Derby, 'Migrant and refugee organisations', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 7 December 2023)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 22 May 2018