Now We Are (Five) Million - Three in 10 people living here were born overseas. But why do they come, and can New Zealand continue to attract skilled migrants in the face of increased global competition? Insight’s Philippa Tolley investigates.
In a wood-panelled auditorium at Te Papa in Wellington, a wide smile spreads across June Parone’s face as she crosses the stage to shake hands with the city’s mayor. She excitedly waves a certificate in front of her: she’s just become a brand-new Kiwi.
Her fellow citizenship candidates are lined up at the front of the auditorium like some sort of adult end-of-year prize-giving. Family and friends crowd in at the back, many jiggling little ones on their lap. There are babies in waistcoats, older children in school uniforms, and whole families dressed up in their finest; all an indication of just how serious a moment this is for most of those in the room.
This is one of dozens of ceremonies held every month, in public spaces across the country, where people gather to become the newest New Zealanders.
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June, who came here from the Philippines, is the sort of immigrant this country is more than happy to get and hopefully hang onto. She is a neonatal intensive care nurse, looking after the smallest and sickest of babies. Skills like hers are in demand around the world, but luckily for this country, friends had told her "lots of wonderful things" about New Zealand so it was top of her list.
"One of the things that my friends said to me, that was really important, is to live in a country where people are very nice, very accommodating and respect each other," she says.
June and her family have gone all out for today’s ceremony, donning Filipino national dress. She is wearing a glittery, short-sleeved top, embroidered with appliquéd flowers. Her matching skirt is long and formal. June's small daughter is a mini-me of her mother and June's husband wears a barong - a traditional, embroidered transparent overshirt, stitched with red botanical motifs.
Despite the family's evident love of their first home country, New Zealand had already been June's home for a number of years before she decided to take the final step and become a citizen.
She just one person who comes from the increasingly diverse range of ethnicities that now make up New Zealand. Prior to the 1980s, New Zealand looked to the UK and Europe for the bulk of its immigrants. But changes to the Immigration Act in 1987 transformed the composition of the migrant community, and now this country can claim to be super-diverse - a term and concept coined by American sociologist Steven Vertovec in 2007, that describes a new era of hypermobility. Stats NZ senior demographer Kim Dunstan says New Zealand is now home to people from most of the nations across the globe.
For every 100 New Zealanders, 10 were born in Asian countries and eight in Europe. Two were born in the Middle East or Africa, principally South Africa. One in every 100 New Zealanders was born in the Americas, mainly the USA, and five were born in other Pacific countries. Let’s not forget our neighbours across the Tasman - 2 percent are from Australia.
That mix also means New Zealand is more linguistically diverse than ever before. While 4 percent of our population speak Māori, another 2 percent speak Mandarin or another Chinese language, and the same number use Samoan and Hindi. Virtually every language across the globe is now represented here, including French, the Philippine's Tagalog, German, Spanish, Tongan, Punjabi, Afrikaans, Korean, and Japanese.
Dunstan says this diversity does come with implications, such as the ability of important services to connect with different communities. “We know different ethnic groups have different health needs… So government agencies may be thinking about how they can communicate effectively.”
But despite those challenges, New Zealand has, in recent times, been successful in attracting immigrants - so much so that Massey University humanities and social sciences distinguished professor Paul Spoonley describes our migrant flows as a stand-out among OECD nations.
The inflow has been significant for 20 years, but even more so recently, he says. “In the last five years, New Zealand's net gain has been running at about 1.5 percent of its total population; much higher than the net gain that you would see in either Canada or Australia. So the numbers arriving … tend as a proportion of the population to be much higher in New Zealand than other countries.”
But all that could be about to change. Spoonley warns the skills and international connections provided by people like June Parone could be harder to get in the future. "Most countries - unlike Australia, Canada, New Zealand - don't go out and select skilled migrants at this point; they're going to have to in the future," he says. "We're going to face a lot more competition for that skilled migration pool.”
That will be compounded by the demographic challenge that China is facing, he says. “China's not going to be able to allow its skilled population to move to a country like New Zealand, and in the future they're going to want to retain those skills in the country."
Spoonley adds that any change in New Zealand’s ability to attract skills from overseas could have serious implications for our economy. “ If you look at the last 20 years, migration has been a huge part of the economic growth of this country... In fact, if you take migration away, you would have literally no growth, no economic growth.”
Still, one of New Zealand's new citizens, Deepak Nair, has his sights firmly set on a future in this country - so much so that he is already planning to contribute on the political front.
Deepak, from Mumbai In India, followed his wife here and started studying. He's been working towards this permanent status for nine years but says the lengthy process has taken its toll. "From days that I've worked so long and studying, obviously. There are language barriers, there are new people and new relationships," he says.
But more than any hardship, he is focused on the upsides Aotearoa offers. "Small things like clean air, clean water, or the amount of sacrifice that was made to achieve what we have here, as humanity, as Kiwis - I am grateful for every single one of those every single day."
And the politics? Deepak speaks highly of qualified people in New Zealand who contribute "very productively". But he is less convinced by others. "People in power, [they are] very frivolous, they have no real long-term engagement. There's a plethora of reasons for that. But I think a bit of a vision is needed."
Paul Spoonley has a vision for the future as well and it includes a serious step-up to adjust to the diversity that is now New Zealand’s reality. The attitudes of small and medium businesses are one example, he says. "They very often identify some groups as less desirable employees. New immigrants tend to be one of the top groups for them. So they haven't understood that in many parts of New Zealand, particularly in Auckland ... their workers or their clients or their customers are not going to be culturally the same as them. They need to adjust to that and they are not adjusting into that."
He says New Zealand will only benefit if it looks after and appreciates its brand new citizens.
*This story is part of a series, Now We Are Five (Million), exploring New Zealand as its population nears 5 million.