The story of Sri Lankan emigration to New Zealand has its roots in the colonial past. From 1796 until 1972, this beautiful island at the southern tip of India, called ‘the pearl of the Indian Ocean’, was under British control. Known as Ceylon, it was a Crown colony from 1802 until 1948, and a dominion until 1972, when it became independent and was renamed Sri Lanka.
From the 16th century until British intervention, coastal areas had been subject to Dutch and later Portuguese control. As a result, Sri Lanka became home to four distinct groups:
Some early visitors came to New Zealand from Ceylon, and the gold rushes attracted a few prospectors. But by 1874 New Zealand residents born in Ceylon numbered a mere 33. As part of Britain’s empire, however, New Zealand dutifully imported both people and commodities from Ceylon. After 1890, Ceylon began to surpass China as New Zealand’s supplier of tea. And by 1901 the number of residents born in Ceylon had grown to 106. It seems likely that many were British colonists in search of fresh opportunities.
After 1950 some students and trainees received education in New Zealand under the Colombo Plan. But the number of New Zealand residents born in Ceylon remained static until the late 1960s. A demand for skilled professionals in New Zealand led to a noticeable increase about this time. Racial and economic tensions in Ceylon, made worse after the declaration of the republic in 1972, also swelled immigrant numbers.
In 1983 Sinhalese political dominance was openly challenged by the militant Tamil Tigers, who sought a separate Tamil state within Sri Lanka. Civil war broke out. As a result many Sri Lankans, both Tamil and Sinhalese, fled Sri Lanka, and the Sri Lankan-born population in New Zealand began to rise dramatically.
Some Sri Lankan exiles had found temporary employment in Africa and Saudi Arabia, intending to return to their homeland, but military intervention against the Tamils in 1987 convinced them to emigrate permanently. As New Zealand had by this time relaxed its immigration policies towards Asians, it was seen as a welcoming destination. The numbers arriving continued to increase, and at the 2013 census there were over 9,500 Sri Lankans living in New Zealand.
In 2013 Sri Lankans comprised over 2% of the Asian population of New Zealand. Of Asians, they were most likely to hold a formal qualification and to work in white-collar occupations. Large numbers of Sri Lankans worked in health professions, business and property services, and the retail and manufacturing sectors. Most lived in Auckland and Wellington, with smaller populations in Waikato, Manawatū–Wanganui, Canterbury and elsewhere.
One result of recent Sri Lankan immigration is the increased number of Theravada Buddhists in New Zealand. Sri Lankan Buddhist centres include the Sri Lankaramaya Temple in Auckland. Maintaining religious practices – Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or Christian – has been a way for all Sri Lankan groups to assert their particular cultural identities.
Another way of maintaining identity has been through ethnic associations. Before 1983, Sri Lankans united in the New Zealand Sri Lanka Friendship Society. The Sri Lankan civil war of 1983 led to a bitter split in the New Zealand Sri Lankan community. That year the United Sri Lanka Association (USLA) was founded with branches in Auckland and Wellington. Though open to all Sri Lankans, its members were mostly Sinhalese Buddhists, and one of the objectives was to present an alternative view to that of Tamil lobbyists. Tamils, on the other hand, formed the New Zealand Tamil Society and various other local societies. Today, both organisations raise money for humanitarian programmes in Sri Lanka.
Other Sri Lankans maintain less formal links through social, sporting and cultural events.
Many Sri Lankans have come to New Zealand as refugees from a brutal conflict, forced to leave behind friends and family, jobs and familiar surroundings. For emotional reasons, Sri Lanka can never be far from their minds. New Zealand, however, represents an opportunity for a fresh start. In the words of Tamil refugee Anton Joseph, ‘I do not want a posh life – just a peaceful one. I just want to see my children able to go out, get an education and live.’ 1
The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Sri Lanka, previously called Ceylon. The numbers include Europeans born in Ceylon.
Between 1916 and 1966 the New Zealand census provided figures on ‘race aliens’ who were defined as people ‘not of European descent’. The census figures listed show those described as ‘Sinhalese’.
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.
‘A community divided: civil war brings tragedy to NZ’s Sri Lankan community.’ Sunday Star Times, 28 September 1986.
Leckie, Jacqueline. ‘South Asians: old and new migrations.’ In Immigration and national identity in New Zealand: one people, two peoples, many peoples?, edited by Stuart William Greif. Palmerston North: Dunmore, 1995.
‘Millennium bash old hat to Sri Lankans.’ New Zealand Herald, 19 April 1999.
New Zealand: an immigrant nation. From Sri Lanka … with sorrow [videorecording]. Producer, Vincent Burke; director, Anna Cottrell. Wellington: Top Shelf Productions, 1994.