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Immigration regulation

by  Ann Beaglehole

For much of the 19th century, New Zealand’s doors were open to all. But in 1881 the first barriers were set up, to hold back Chinese immigrants. By the 1920s, it became harder for anyone who was not British to get in. Russians, Italians, Japanese, Africans – people from all over the globe faced restrictions. There was a ‘White New Zealand’ policy in practice, if not in name. By the end of the 20th century, other conditions were applied to immigrants, such as whether they had job skills or financial assets, or were in need of refuge.

Immigration policy: overview

Who has been allowed to settle in New Zealand? Over the years since 1840, laws and regulations have been used to restrict or prevent the entry of ‘undesirable’ individuals or groups. Making New Zealand British and keeping the country white were the main goals of immigration policy until the early 1970s. People from Britain were actively recruited, while people perceived as ‘different’ were kept out.

Strong imperial sentiments in the colonial period, and views about race through the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, largely explain the purpose of New Zealand’s immigration restrictions. But alongside these narrow-minded, racist attitudes, more inclusive views about the peopling of New Zealand have also been expressed.

The Treaty of Waitangi and immigration

In 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi acknowledged that British subjects were already in New Zealand. Implicit in Māori agreement to the treaty was that more immigrants would come from the United Kingdom, Europe and Australia. Some Māori have argued that their ancestors agreed to allow immigration only from the countries named in the preamble to the treaty, and that the regulation of immigration from other countries should be discussed with them as a treaty partner.

Māori views of immigrants

In the early 1800s Māori had mixed views about the arrival of Europeans. Chiefs would assess the possible benefits these newcomers might bring in terms of trade, tools and weapons. The Ngāpuhi chief Hongi Hika was in favour of British missionaries settling in New Zealand. This was not for religious reasons, but because he knew that an association with missionaries would increase his influence on other Europeans, bringing greater opportunities to trade for tools and weapons.

A developing colony

In the 19th century, as a colony of the British Empire, New Zealand sought the right to curb Asian immigration. Concerned about the impact of these restrictions on its own interests in China, India and Japan, the British government refused to assent to New Zealand’s Asiatic Restriction Bill of 1896. Changes in immigration laws and regulations over the years have also highlighted the close links between immigration and economic strategies.

Change from the 1970s

Until 1961 (in law) and 1974 (in practice), British subjects were allowed free entry into New Zealand. Immigrants from Asia faced restrictions from the late 19th century. Entry of non-British Europeans was restricted from the early 20th century.

Beginning in 1974, the criteria for entry to New Zealand gradually changed from race or nationality to merit and skills. The Immigration Act 1987 finally eliminated both discrimination against some races and nationalities, and preference for others. But the numbers of migrants and the prerequisites they had to meet remained tightly regulated.

1881–1914: restrictions on Chinese and others

Restrictions on immigration were first imposed in 1881. Until then, anyone who arrived in New Zealand had been able to remain in the country, including ‘aliens’ (non-British subjects) who could, after 1844, apply for ‘naturalisation’ and become British subjects.

Fears about the increasing number of Chinese in New Zealand grew during the 1870s. Groups of Chinese first arrived when they were invited to work Otago’s declining goldfields. By 1869 there were about 2,000 Chinese men in New Zealand. Despite this small number, and an 1871 parliamentary report dismissing allegations against Chinese, calls to restrict the entry of Chinese people mounted.

The Chinese Immigrants Act 1881

This act was the first to restrict the entry of a specific group of people. The number of Chinese who could arrive on one ship was limited to one for every 10 tons of the vessel’s volume. A poll tax of £10 was also imposed on each Chinese person entering the country. In 1888 the ratio of Chinese immigrants was cut to one per 100 tons. In 1896, it was halved to one per 200 tons, and the poll tax was increased to £100.

‘A barbarous measure’

In 1881, during a debate in the Legislative Council, a speaker pointed out the hypocrisy in taxing Chinese immigrants before they were admitted to the colony:

‘When we first came to New Zealand did the Maoris ever impose a tax upon us? No: and I will venture to say that we have done a great deal more harm to the Maoris than the Chinese are ever likely to do to us. I think the people who come after us will be thoroughly ashamed and thoroughly astonished at what their progenitors have done, for it is simply an inhuman and barbarous measure.’ 1

Indians and other Asians

Unlike the Chinese, most Indians were British subjects and free to enter New Zealand until the very end of the 19th century. From 1896, despite objections from the British government, New Zealand tried to pass more comprehensive legislation restricting the immigration not just of the Chinese but also of Indians and other Asians.

Immigration Restriction Act 1899

The 1899 act (which was acceptable to the British) was not aimed overtly at Asians. It prohibited the entry of immigrants who were not of British or Irish parentage and who could not fill out an application form ‘in any European language’ – which in practice meant English.

These rules were in place for the next 20 years. But the application form was standard, and applicants could simply memorise a few lines of English. The requirement was used, however, to keep Chinese, Indians and others out.

Under the 1899 act, the Chinese remained subject to the poll tax of £100 and the shipping tonnage restriction imposed in earlier legislation.

Chinese Immigrants Amendment Act 1907

Under the 1907 Chinese Immigrants Amendment Act, Chinese people had to pass an additional English-language reading test, by reading 100 words of English in front of customs officials. The £100 poll tax remained.

Immigration Restriction Amendment Act 1908

The Immigration Restriction Amendment Act 1908 required Chinese people living in New Zealand to place a thumbprint on their certificate of registration before leaving the country, in order to get a re-entry permit. The aim was to prevent the permit being used by another person to enter the country. The Chinese were the only group who had to do this.

Prejudice against Asians

Fear of economic competition was one reason why the entry of Chinese, Indians and other ‘race aliens’ was restricted. Contemporary ideas about Asia and the non-white world were also used to justify the restrictions. But more importantly, there was a strong belief in the superiority of white people and a desire to make New Zealand a ‘Britain of the South’. These views were accompanied by a sense of the dangers of miscegenation (the interbreeding of different races). While there was wide support for what was in effect a ‘White New Zealand’ policy, some people spoke out against the restrictions.

New Zealand was not alone in restricting the entry of race aliens. Poll taxes on Chinese settlers were also levied in Australia and Canada.

    • Henry Scotland, New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 28 June 1881, p. 210. › Back

1914–1945: restrictions on non-British immigration

Wartime restrictions

Under the War Regulations of 1916, during the First World War, no person over the age of 15 could land in New Zealand without a passport or other document establishing his or her nationality or identity.

Undesirable Immigrants Exclusion Act 1919

Under the Undesirable Immigrants Exclusion Act 1919, those born in the former German and Austro-Hungarian empires were prohibited from entering without a licence issued by the attorney-general. The act also gave the attorney-general the power to prohibit the entry of any person not resident in New Zealand – including a British subject – who was ‘disaffected or disloyal, or of such a character that his presence would be injurious to the peace, order and good government’ of New Zealand. In effect, the act was aimed primarily at Germans, socialists and Marxists.

Immigration Restriction Amendment Act 1920

The government willingly met demands to restrict Asian immigration further. Prime Minister William Massey claimed that the Immigration Restriction Amendment Act 1920 was ‘the result of a deep seated sentiment on the part of a huge majority of the people of this country that this Dominion shall be what is often called a “white” New Zealand.’ 1 Until 1974, this act determined who was allowed to enter New Zealand.

Indian immigration

Like the Chinese, Gujarati and Punjabi Indians came originally as sojourners, not intending to settle permanently in New Zealand. In the late 1870s people began migrating from India to Fiji, where they worked as indentured labourers on sugar plantations. Before 1920 some Gujaratis came to New Zealand en route to Fiji, or on their way back to India.

Indian migration remained limited until after the First World War. It is thought that there were around 100 Gujaratis in New Zealand in 1916; by 1921 there were 539, along with 200 Punjabis.

The new principle established by the act was ‘unsuitability’ for settlement in New Zealand. People who were not of British or Irish birth and parentage had to apply in writing for a permit to enter. The minister of customs had the discretion to determine whether any applicant was suitable. ‘Aboriginal natives’ of any part of the British Empire except New Zealand were not British for the purposes of the act. The act gave the government power to waive the permit requirement for particular nationalities.

The 1920 act removed existing language and education tests. The rule that Chinese people leave a thumbprint on their certificates of registration to secure re-entry was lifted, but the poll tax remained in place as ‘a useful extra precaution’. 2 The tax was not abolished until 1944, though it was not applied after 1934.

The 1920 act in practice

The 1920 act was passed primarily to restrict Asian immigration, but Asians were not its only targets. It was also used to curb the entry of other non-British people, particularly southern Europeans such as ‘Dalmatians’ (Croatians) and Italians.

Asian immigration was not choked off entirely under the 1920 act. The wives and children of Indians who were permanent New Zealand residents were allowed to enter. Even in the case of the Chinese, the act was not used to prevent all immigration. In the early 1920s, the government agreed that 100 permits a year would be issued to Chinese people. From 1926, however, entry was limited to the wives or fiancées of New Zealand-born Chinese men.

Immigration Restriction Amendment Act 1931

The 1931 Immigration Restriction Amendment Act, passed during the Depression, prevented aliens (as non-British immigrants were still known) from Europe entering New Zealand. The only exceptions were those who had guaranteed employment, a considerable amount of capital, or knowledge and skills ‘which would enable them to rehabilitate readily, but without detriment to any resident of New Zealand’. 3 Because of this act, only a small number of Jewish refugees from Nazism were able to come to New Zealand before the Second World War.

Family migration in the 1930s

In the 1930s, the practice continued of allowing some non-British permanent residents to bring to New Zealand members of their immediate families. But to discourage the growth of a locally born Chinese population, restrictions on family migration remained. In addition, Chinese men found the £100 poll tax for their wives prohibitive.

In 1935 entry permits for the reunification of families of Chinese in New Zealand were introduced, limited to just 10 a year. In 1939, after the occupation of southern China by the Japanese, temporary permits for the wives and children of Chinese men in New Zealand were issued, on payment of a bond of £500. These people were subsequently given permanent residence. After the war, more Chinese people were allowed into New Zealand to join family members.

    • New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 14 September 1920, p. 905. › Back
    • P. S. O’Connor, ‘Keeping New Zealand white, 1908–1920.’ New Zealand Journal of History 2, no. 1, (1968): 59. › Back
    • Quoted in Ann Beaglehole, A small price to pay: refugees from Hitler in New Zealand, 1936–1946. Wellington: Allen & Unwin/ Department of Internal Affairs, 1986, p. 14. › Back

1946–1985: gradual change

The 1946 Population Report

In 1946 a parliamentary select committee was set up to look at ways to increase the population of New Zealand. Its report set the principles for immigration regulation until the early 1970s. It was accepted that although most of New Zealand’s labour needs could be met through natural population growth, some immigrants would be needed to address specific skill shortages. People of British stock were preferred. If numbers of British immigrants fell short, people from Scandinavia or Northern Europe would be considered.

Free passage – but not for all

In 1947, in the drive to find more workers, the government introduced a scheme to encourage immigrants – at first from the United Kingdom only. Free passage was granted to suitable former members of the armed forces, and assisted passage to other suitable young, single migrants. As the labour shortage continued, this scheme was extended in 1950 to include Dutch, Danish, Swiss, Austrian and German people aged under 35. In 1952–53, 29,000 migrants arrived (over 2,700 of them Dutch).

Continuing restrictions on Asian migration

Post-war immigration regulations continued to discriminate against Asians. A Department of External Affairs memorandum in 1953 stated: ‘Our immigration is based firmly on the principle that we are and intend to remain a country of European development. It is inevitably discriminatory against Asians – indeed against all persons who are not wholly of European race and colour. Whereas we have done much to encourage immigration from Europe, we do everything to discourage it from Asia.’ 1

Immigration Amendment Act 1961

In the 1960s, tentative steps were taken towards a non-discriminatory immigration policy. Under the Immigration Amendment Act 1961. British and Irish immigrants, along with other non-New Zealand citizens (except Australians, who could enter freely) were required to have a permit before entering New Zealand. In practice, this provision was a formality for Britons and Irish, who were issued with permits on arrival. Nevertheless, for the first time, the 1961 act put British and non-British people on the same footing when they sought to enter New Zealand.

Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement 1973

From 1961 only Australians had unrestricted entry to New Zealand. This was a long-standing right, established in 1840 when New Zealand became a British colony like those in Australia. Reciprocal travel arrangements, beginning in the 1920s, formalised this free movement from one country to the other. In 1973, the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement allowed Australian and New Zealand citizens to enter each other’s countries (to visit, live, work or remain indefinitely) without having to apply for a permit.

Immigration policy review of 1974

In 1971 Norman Kirk, who became prime minister in 1972, argued that New Zealand’s future lay with Asia and the Pacific. In his view, New Zealand needed an immigration policy that ignored prospective migrants’ race, colour and religion.

After the immigration policy review of 1974, British migrants, like all others, were required to obtain a permit before they left their homeland. The British and Irish were now on the same footing as the nationals of other countries.

Rhetoric and practice

Officially, from 1974 applicants were granted permanent entry into New Zealand on the basis of the demand for their skills and qualifications. But although there was a distinct shift away from racism in official rhetoric, migrants from the traditional source countries (Britain and northern Europe) continued to be favoured in practice.

By 1978 three grounds for entry were in place: occupation, family reunification and humanitarian considerations. Provision was also made for business migrants with skills and capital, and people distinguished in the arts, sciences or public life.

Language tests

From 1920 to 1974 proficiency in English was not required for entry, but those with other native languages still found it difficult to make a written application in English.

After 1974, when migrants were drawn from a wider range of countries, there was no English language requirement. However, knowledge of English did make entry easier. Language skills were assessed at interviews, and some knowledge of English was required under a points system.

    • Quoted in Stuart William Greif, ed., Immigration and national identity in New Zealand: one people, two peoples, many peoples? Palmerston North: Dunmore, 1995, p. 39. › Back

1986–2003: selection on merit

1986–87: a review and a new act

The Immigration Policy Review of 1986 was the culmination of the gradual shift which had begun in the 1960s. It marked a real break with the earlier emphasis on nationality and ethnic origin as the basis for admitting immigrants. Any person who met specified educational, business, professional, age or asset requirements was to be admitted, regardless of race or nationality.

Under the Immigration Act 1987, which followed the review, immigrants were selected in three categories:

  • A skills and business stream. An occupational priority list identified skills needed in New Zealand. Priority was also given to entrepreneurs and business people; business immigrants were expected to transfer at least NZ$150,000 to New Zealand. Ability in the English language was assessed at interviews. This category accounted for over half the immigrants who arrived after 1987.
  • A family stream. Restrictions on family migration were eased under the 1987 act. Migrants who did not have immediate relatives elsewhere in the world were allowed to join family members living in New Zealand. Up to a third of the subsequent immigrants came under this category.
  • A humanitarian stream. This was for people whose circumstances were causing them emotional or physical harm. In most years, about 10% of immigrants entered New Zealand under this category.

Immigration Amendment Act 1991

The Immigration Amendment Act 1991 replaced the occupational priority list with a points system. Applicants were awarded points for employability, age, educational qualifications and available funds. A modest level of English was required.

Under the points system, any applicant achieving a minimum number of points was automatically eligible for admission. Yearly immigration targets were set and the total number coming in was adjusted by raising or lowering the number of points needed, or by tightening or easing such criteria as English language competence.

Other changes introduced in 1991 included a new ‘general skills’ category, under which an applicant had to have a degree or certified trade or vocational qualification.

These changes favoured people of early to middle working age who had appropriate qualifications, work experience and business skills, the ability to be self-supporting on arrival, or the capital to invest in a business.

People from non-traditional source countries now found it easier to meet the criteria to migrate to New Zealand. The number of Asian migrants grew.

1995 adjustments

The regulations were reviewed again in 1995 to ensure that New Zealand continued to attract migrants who would most benefit the country. Concern about the increasing number of Asians living in New Zealand was also behind the review.

The previous points system was replaced with a ‘pass mark’ which was adjusted according to a set quota or target. This provided more control over the number of migrants arriving each year.

English language requirements also became tighter. Principal applicants had to meet a minimum standard of English. Non-principal applicants aged 16 or over were also required to pass an English test or pay a $20,000 bond, refunded if a satisfactory standard was reached within 12 months. In 1998 the pre-purchase of language courses replaced the language bond. The aim was to attract business migrants discouraged by earlier changes to the regulations.

Changes in 2002 and 2003

The drive to attract immigrants in areas of skills shortage, and perhaps a response to growing public concern about levels of immigration from Asia, led to further changes.

In 2002 the standard of English required for the general skills category and some of the business categories was raised to the level required of students entering university.

In 2003 the general skills category was replaced by a skilled migrant category. This replaced the pass mark system with a process whereby people qualifying above a level of points entered a selection pool, from which they were invited to apply for residence. Applicants had to be of good health and character, and points were allocated on the basis of age, qualifications, employment status, work experience, identified skills shortage and the location of any job offer.

Skilled/business stream

There was still encouragement for business immigrants, including the following groups:

  • investors, who were expected to contribute a minimum of NZ$1 million
  • entrepreneurs, who had to prove that they had established a successful business in New Zealand
  • employees of relocating businesses
  • others who were given the opportunity to establish a business as the basis for future residence.

There were also language tests for business immigrants, although at a lower level. The skilled migrant and business categories were expected to provide 60% of new immigrants. The target was 45,000 a year (plus or minus 5,000).

Family-sponsored stream

Family members, especially partners and dependent children, were also allocated immigration places, and were expected to comprise 30% of the total number of immigrants each year.

International/humanitarian stream

An apology

At the Chinese New Year celebration on 12 February 2002, Prime Minister Helen Clark made this statement:

I wish to announce today that the government has decided to make a formal apology to those Chinese people who paid the poll tax and suffered other discrimination imposed by statute and to their descendants. With respect to the poll tax we recognise the considerable hardship it imposed and that the cost of it and the impact of other discriminatory immigration practices split families apart. Today we also express our sorrow and regret that such practices were once considered appropriate. 1

The remaining 10% of places were set aside for migrants who arrived for primarily humanitarian reasons. This included refugees and those Pacific Islanders given special access.

In 2004 New Zealand’s immigration regulations remained blind to race or nationality. But there was some evidence that the focus on skills and English language requirements was leading to a reduction in the number of immigrants from Asia.

    • Full speech available on the Office of Ethnic Affairs website ( › Back

Controlling Pacific Island immigration

Pacific Islanders in New Zealand

Regulating the flow and determining the status of Pacific Island migrants became complex when larger numbers came after the Second World War to meet New Zealand’s labour needs.

Some Pacific Islanders are New Zealand citizens and have free entry (Cook Islanders and Niueans since 1901; Tokelauans since 1916). Other Pacific Islanders (including Tongans, Fijians and Samoans) have faced barriers. These have changed according to New Zealand’s economic conditions and public opinion. When labour was short, Pacific Islanders had relatively unrestricted access to New Zealand.

Western Samoans

As part of a 1962 Treaty of Friendship, immigrants from Western Samoa were admitted under a quota. They had to meet requirements in relation to age, family size, health, character, and accommodation, and have a guarantee of employment before they arrived.

Three-month visas were in place from 1964, and annual quotas were set in 1967. But because the 1960s and early 1970s were years of economic expansion and labour shortages, the temporary visas and quotas were not strictly enforced. While the demand for unskilled labour remained high, the government in effect turned a blind eye to Samoans and other Pacific Islanders arriving on temporary visas and staying on, or arriving in greater numbers than the quotas allowed.

Pacific Island migration in the 1970s

The 1974 immigration policy review reaffirmed the free access to New Zealand of those born in the Cook Islands, Niue, and Tokelau. It also stated that Western Samoa, as a territory formerly administered by New Zealand, ‘holds a special place in the policy’.

By the mid-1970s, demand for Pacific Island labour had diminished. The tolerance towards migrant workers on temporary permits from Western Samoa, Tonga and Fiji came to an end.

The 1974 review sought to make a clear distinction between migrants with a legal right to remain permanently in New Zealand and those who had overstayed after entering on visitor or temporary permits. Efforts to enforce the distinction included dawn raids on Pacific Island households in Auckland, and other measures.

The statistics of prejudice

A study carried out in 1985–86 was revealing: it showed that while Pacific Island people comprised only a third of overstayers, they made up 86% of all prosecutions for overstaying. Citizens of the United States and the United Kingdom, who made up almost a third of those overstaying, represented only 5% of prosecutions.

Entry under quotas

People from the Pacific Islands continued to enter and stay in New Zealand during the late 1970s and 1980s, legally if they could, illegally if they could not. From 2002, under the Samoan quota, 1,100 Samoan citizens could be granted residence each year provided they had a job offer and met other conditions.

A Pacific Access category set quotas for people from Tonga, Fiji, Tuvalu and Kiribati to be granted residence in New Zealand. Pitcairn Islanders were considered for residence provided they had a firm job offer here.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ann Beaglehole, 'Immigration regulation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Ann Beaglehole, i tāngia i te 8 o Pēpuere 2005, updated 1 o Ākuhata 2015