Story: Refugees

Page 3. 1950s–1970s: refugee groups

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Displaced persons from Europe, 1949–52

After the Second World War, the New Zealand government was initially reluctant to accept displaced persons from Europe. It finally agreed to admit a limited number. The New Zealand Selection Mission took particular care not to select criminals and collaborators. It also aimed to exclude groups ‘not at one with ourselves’ 1 and stated a preference for people from the Baltic states rather than Jews or Slavs. But displaced persons of many nationalities, including some Jews, were admitted. During this period, between 4,500 and 5,000 people arrived. They were brought to New Zealand on ships provided by the International Refugee Organisation.

Dressing down

A part-Jewish boy, born in Poland when it was under German occupation, came to New Zealand with his parents after the Second World War as a displaced person. He was embarrassed on the first day he went to school in small-town New Zealand:

‘I wore leather pantlets that German children [often] wear. They are very sensible gear as they are almost indestructible. You can even slide round rocks in them. They are ornately patterned. I wore those pantlets to school and all the children laughed at me. I couldn’t understand it. I felt humiliated and embarrassed. I think I got New Zealand pants pretty quickly.’ 2

Hungarian refugees, 1956–58

New Zealand reacted swiftly to the refugee crisis after the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviet-backed Communist regime. Around 1,100 refugees who had fled Hungary were accepted. The welcome given them was warmer because of Cold War politics between the Communist Soviet Union and the West. The fact that the refugees were white, and were expected to be an economic asset, contributed to the government’s positive response.

‘Handicapped’ refugees, 1959

‘Handicapped’ refugees were those regarded as hard to settle for such reasons as ill health, disability, advanced age, or having large numbers of dependent children. In 1959, New Zealand became one of the first countries in the world to accept refugee families with handicapped members. By 1963, New Zealand had resettled over 200 such families.

Chinese refugees, 1962–71

Civil war and the establishment of a Communist government in China created large waves of Chinese refugees from the 1940s. New Zealand’s response was slow, probably due to a reluctance to resettle refugees who were not white.

Eventually, small numbers were accepted. In 1962, 50 Chinese orphans from Hong Kong were admitted for adoption by New Zealand families. For a few years in the late 1960s there was a quota of six families a year. Twelve Chinese families from Indonesia were admitted in 1967.

Russian Christians from China, 1965

In 1965, New Zealand accepted 80 members of a community of Russian fundamentalist Christians known as the Old Believers. They had fled to China to escape persecution, and were regarded by the international community as hard to resettle because they insisted on being accepted in large groups.

Czechoslovak refugees, 1968–71

A refugee crisis was created by the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. New Zealand was keen to accept a small number of Czechoslovak refugees as a further gesture against Communism in the Cold War. Like the Hungarians, the Czechoslovaks were white and had work skills that New Zealand needed. Around 125 people from Czechoslovakia arrived between 1968 and 1971.

Asians from Uganda, 1972–73

New Zealand responded to international appeals to help Asians expelled from Uganda as part of President Idi Amin’s ‘Africanisation’ policy. In 1972–73, 244 Ugandan Asians arrived.

  1. Quoted in Ann Beaglehole, A small price to pay: refugees from Hitler in New Zealand, 1936–1946. Wellington: Allen & Unwin, 1986, p. 5. › Back
  2. Ann Beaglehole, Facing the past: looking back at refugee childhood in New Zealand, 1940s–1960s. Wellington: Allen & Unwin, 1990, pp. 60–61. › Back
How to cite this page:

Ann Beaglehole, 'Refugees - 1950s–1970s: refugee groups', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 4 December 2022)

Story by Ann Beaglehole, published 8 Feb 2005