Kōrero: History of immigration

Whārangi 17. Multi-cultural New Zealand: 1991 onwards

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

The points system of entry led to increased and diverse immigration. Between 1971 and 1991 the number of foreign-born residents had increased by 116,000. In the decade after 1991 this increased by 170,000, to a total of almost 700,000 who were born in places other than New Zealand. By 2001 the proportion of these immigrants in the total population was the highest since 1936.

In the following five years, the number of foreign-born residents grew to 879,543 – 22.9% of the population.


Through the 1990s the number of English and Scots fell, and by 2006 those born in the United Kingdom were less than a quarter of all foreign-born immigrants. There were still some new arrivals of European ethnicity.

A few arrived who were born in Australia – some the families of returning New Zealanders, others attracted by job opportunities in a trans-Tasman economy. By 2006, there were over 40,000 South Africans, mostly of European descent, many uncomfortable at the direction of change in their homeland. There were almost 11,000 Germans – a resurgence after 100 years – and almost 18,000 from the United States – both groups seeking a safe, ‘clean and green’ refuge for the family or to take up professional opportunities. The number of French also increased to 2,500, and there were almost 5,000 Russians.

Africans and Middle Eastern people

Political crises in North Africa and the Middle East brought in people from Iran, Iraq and Somalia, to add their distinctive cultures to New Zealand’s cities. Many came as refugees, most notably 131 Afghans on board the Tampa in 2001, when Australia refused to allow them to land. By 2006 there were over 16,000 people in New Zealand from North Africa and the Middle East.

Pacific Islanders

Pacific Islanders did not arrive in great numbers during this period. The new controls based on skills, capital, and education disadvantaged them, and population pressures had diminished. The only substantial increase was among those born in Fiji, where the Indian community was under political pressure. By the turn of the century, Pacific Island communities were a large and vital part of New Zealand’s cities, and also of rugby and netball teams, but the majority were New Zealand-born.


The most significant influx in this period was from Asia – but not from the regions of Indonesia, Malaysia or the old Indochina which had previously been important sources. By 2006, China and Hong Kong together had contributed over 85,000 to the resident population in New Zealand. Some came for an education or to transfer their skills to an uncrowded, cleaner country. Another major area of origin, with almost 40,000 residents, was North-East Asia: Korea and Japan. All but a handful arrived from the 1990s onwards. Many came to Auckland to invest and establish their families in a healthy environment. Between 1991 and 2006 the Filipino population more than tripled, a high proportion being women marrying Kiwi men. Finally there were substantial migrations from South Asia – in the 15 years to 2006, the Indian community quadrupled, and the Sri Lankan community tripled. In 2006, people of Asian ethnicity made up 9.2% of the population – up from 6.6% five years earlier.

Watershed years

The 1990s were significant in New Zealand immigration history – foreigners came in large numbers, and from new places of origin. The Chinese, though joining older communities, came from different parts of China than before.

Apart from some of the refugees, newcomers were not the poor and the struggling, but educated and comparatively wealthy people. Their numbers allowed them to cluster together in their own suburbs, especially around Auckland, and to establish their own churches, schools, restaurants and social rituals. By living together they became more visible; not surprisingly there was some adverse political response to these developments.

In 1995 and again in 2002 the English language requirements for entry were raised. In 2003 new conditions targeted those with high skills. There was some evidence that as a result the number of immigrants from non-European countries was falling.

Yet the revolution was irreversible. In 2004 it was said that after Australia, New Zealand had the world's second highest proportion of immigrants in its workforce. The census of 2006 also showed that only 67 in every 100 New Zealanders were of purely European ethnicity. People of Pacific Island ethnicity formed about 6.9% of the population; about 9.2% were Asian.

For over 130 years, from 1840 to the 1970s, New Zealand sought to people itself with ‘kith and kin’ from the United Kingdom. In the years since then, immigration from new countries has transformed the nation’s culture and values.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Jock Phillips, 'History of immigration - Multi-cultural New Zealand: 1991 onwards', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/history-of-immigration/page-17 (accessed 25 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Jock Phillips, i tāngia i te 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Aug 2015