Story: Pacific Islands and New Zealand

Page 2. Immigration and aid

All images & media in this story

Close links with and employment opportunities in New Zealand have led to considerable migration of Pacific peoples to New Zealand.

New Zealand citizenship and rights of residence have encouraged the migration of Cook Islanders, Niueans and Tokelauans. There has also been substantial migration to New Zealand from Samoa, Tonga and Fiji. Samoans, Tongans and Fijians are not New Zealand citizens, so migration from these countries has been more strongly affected by periodic changes in New Zealand government policy. Smaller numbers of people from other Pacific Islands have also migrated here.

The Pacific population in New Zealand reached 266,000 in 2006. Increasing numbers of this group were New Zealand-born, and the relative youthfulness of the population suggested that continued strong growth was likely. In some cases the New Zealand-resident population was larger than the population of the original island home.

In 2006 New Zealand’s population included:

  • almost 57,000 Cook Islanders, compared with almost 13,000 in the Cook Islands
  • almost 22,500 Niueans (with more than 1,200 in Niue)
  • almost 7,000 Tokelauans (with almost 800 in Tokelau)
  • more than 131,000 Samoans (with almost 176,000 in Samoa)
  • more than 50,000 Tongans (with almost 99,000 in Tonga).

In 2007 the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme was introduced. This brings thousands of workers from the Pacific Islands each year to work in New Zealand horticulture and viticulture on short-term contracts.


Government aid is not the only source of financial help sent from New Zealand to the Pacific Islands. A lot of money is sent home by those who have emigrated. Known as remittances, these gifts to family have been a major source of development finance for island nations.

Aid in the 2000s

In the 2000s over half of New Zealand aid went to the Pacific region. Countries facing the greatest challenges – Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu – received the greatest amount. Cook Islands, Tonga, Samoa, Kiribati, Fiji, Tuvalu, Niue and Tokelau were also assisted. From 2008, the new National-led government shifted the focus of aid efforts from poverty alleviation to sustainable economic development.

Mid-20th-century expansion

Prior to the Second World War Pacific Island communities in New Zealand were very small, with the largest numbering only a few hundred. Faced with labour shortages in the post-war period, the New Zealand government encouraged Pacific migrants. Programmes brought young men over as agricultural and forestry workers, and young women as domestics. An acute labour shortage in manufacturing in the early 1970s drew many more.

The provision of aid to the Pacific Islands increased in the 1950s and 1960s. The 1972–75 Labour government is frequently identified as a turning point in New Zealand’s relations with Pacific states. Prime Minister Norman Kirk substantially increased overseas development assistance and raised the proportion channelled to the South Pacific.

Cutting back immigration and aid

The oil crisis and economic recession of the 1970s led to a reversal of aid and immigration policy. By the 1980s and early 1990s the aid Budget allocation had fallen to less than half its 1975–76 high point of $59.7 million (around 0.5% of gross domestic product).

Soured relationship

Police with dogs bursting into homes at dawn, random street checks on immigration status, draconian powers for the courts and Department of Immigration, prosecutions of Pacific Islanders while others who overstayed their visas were ignored – these factors soured New Zealand’s relationship with Pacific Island states in the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1974 the Kirk government clamped down on people overstaying the time allowed by their visas. Pacific Islanders attracted the most attention, with Samoans and Tongans particularly affected, and ‘dawn raids’ by police on the homes of suspected overstayers were introduced. Immigration policy continued to be tightened under the National government elected in 1975. Dawn raids ended in the late 1970s after considerable public outcry, including protests by the Polynesian Panthers, a group of New Zealand-born Pacific Islanders influenced by the American Black Panthers movement.

Periodic amnesties allowed migrants to more easily acquire citizenship, but a stereotype developed of Pacific Islanders as troublesome, as school drop-outs or as bearers of health problems. This stereotype was sometimes exploited for political gain.

Shaping migration

Rates of immigration rose and fell as government policy was liberalised then tightened and New Zealand’s economy thrived then shrank. The government briefly trialled visa-free status for Fijians, Samoans and Tongans in late 1986 and early 1987, then backtracked when more arrived than expected. From the later 1980s the shrinking of New Zealand’s manufacturing sector substantially reduced the number of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs available. Between 1991 and 1993 more Samoans and Tongans left New Zealand than arrived.

How to cite this page:

Jon Fraenkel, 'Pacific Islands and New Zealand - Immigration and aid', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 June 2024)

Story by Jon Fraenkel, published 20 Jun 2012