27 Aug 2018

Migrants and problem gambling: 'I thought it was a way of getting easy money to live on'

From Here Now, 7:00 am on 27 August 2018

Steve* first played pokies while waiting to pick up his mother from Sky City casino. After putting just two notes into the machine, this 20-something Samoan-New Zealander hit the jackpot, winning $4000. He shared the money with his mum.

The following weekend, Steve's mum wanted to go to the casino once more and he played pokies for the second time. He won again, this time $1000.

"I got hooked straight away.”

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Photo: Flickr/creative commons

At the time, Steve earned $50,000 a year.

"Just winning the jackpot felt good. It’s a rush, a big high."

One of his biggest jackpot wins was $10,000, but believes he lost a lot more than that.

Eventually there was no money to pay the bills and his car almost got repossessed.

"It just got so out of control," Steve said. "So I googled Pacific problem gambling and found Mapu Maia.”

The name translates into the Samoan language as ‘come and take a rest.’

Photo: RNZ/Sara Vui-Talitu


The Problem Gambling Foundation of New Zealand's Pasifika Unit has been in place since 2009 to help clients in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

They run a helpline in English, Samoan and Tongan. 

Mapu Maia director Pesio Ah-Honi said it is a culturally effective service to help people overcome shame.

"So much happens in a person's life when they get addicted to gambling.”

“But it often gets to a point where things go horribly wrong and they have lost everything, or they suffer (poor) mental health, or get involved in crime."

An addiction to gambling is more common within lower socio-economic groups and areas where many Pasifika live and work. Often such areas have a disproportionately high number of pokies and gaming machines too.


A new study suggests nationally levels of gambling related harm remain unchanged with Maori and Pacific people as well as migrants more likely to develop problems.

AUT Gambling and Addictions Research Centre director, Max Abbott, said people often have stereotypes of Asians being gamblers.

"That is simply not true," he said.

Abbott said many people come from mainland China, where the forms of gambling here are not available.

"But the longer they are here, the more likely they are to engage."

The same goes for Pacific people, who develop gambling problems at an extraordinarily high rate relative to other New Zealanders.

Research Fellow Dr Maria Bellringer has researched gambling since 2002.

“New migrants are at a raised risk of developing harmful gambling,” she said. “New Zealand is just one of two countries, Sweden the other, working towards gambling harm minimisation.”

“But more needs to be done to protect migrants."

"Perhaps on arrival here people can be given more information.”

In the 2016-2017 financial year, New Zealanders lost over $2.3 billion dollars in gambling, up $125 million on the year before.

Pesio Ah-Honi, Shirleen Prasad and Kelly Feng in the Problem Gambling Foundation's offices in Auckland.

Pesio Ah-Honi, Shirleen Prasad and Kelly Feng in the Problem Gambling Foundation's offices in Auckland. Photo: RNZ/Sara Vui-Talitu


The Asian population is the fastest growing ethnic group in New Zealand and they make up a quarter of Auckland's total population.

The Problem Gambling Foundation offers a counselling hub called Asian Family Services to this growing community. On average 3000 phone calls are made to their helpline every year. 

Asian Family Services director Kelly Feng says they offer a service in English and other languages like Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai and Hindi.

Its newest arm is Asha, a Hindi/Punjabi counselling service, set up in 2017. There is increased demand from South-East Asians wanting help now and during the first six months of this year, Asha recorded 130 interventions with clients. Asha Team leader Shirleen Prasad says that figure is conservative.

Interestingly 90% of Asha clients are currently or have been international students who have lived in New Zealand for under five years. Many have no family here. Over 1000 Indian international students have taken part in Asha workshops too. 

Often these students gamble money they can’t afford to lose.

"Many gamble money their families send them to do things like renew their visas or pay for their education,” said Shirleen.

“It doesn't matter the amount, but it’s money they really can't afford to lose.”

Many clients say the casino is a place that makes them feel welcome, safe and part of a community.

"We are a very collectivist culture,” said Shirleen. “When they come to New Zealand they lose that sense of community feeling isolated and lonely. They go to the casino and they feel like they belong”.

Gambling is tightly controlled in India and the stigma of addiction is huge. Many clients do not want to bring shame to their families and confidentiality is key.

Shirleen said a significant number of Indian people aged between 20 and 29 are being excluded by Sky City in Auckland, or are self-excluding themselves from the casino.

The Department of Internal Affairs figures show that in 2017, Sky City Auckland banned 207 people, and 576 people self-excluded themselves from the premises. The figures are not broken down by ethnicity, but in a statement, Sky City said:

"Overall we have seen an increase in the number of customers of Indian ethnicity who have been excluded, or have chosen to exclude themselves from our Auckland casino. This increase is broadly in line with the increase in Auckland's Indian population generally and also reflects workers or travelling visitors. "

Along with bans and self-exclusions, the casino insists it works in line with host responsibility obligations. They have a series of interventions in place, such as ethnically diverse staff, and pre-imposed spending limits. Customer information is also offered in a number of different languages, including Hindi.

Sky City’s record $169.5 million dollar net profit for the year ending June 2018 suggests it could do more to minimise gambling harm. 

The team at Mapu Maia pose for a group photo.

The team at Mapu Maia. Photo: Mapu Maia


There are ongoing efforts towards intervention and awareness in communities. There is Gambling Harm Awareness Week in September plus the government is again seeking public feedback on the Ministry of Health strategy to prevent and minimise gambling harm. 

Steve* credits seeking help and ongoing counselling for helping him to quit gambling.  He was assigned to a counsellor named James.

"James helped me a lot," said Steve. "He told me things that I knew deep down were true."

He advises people to seek help sooner than he did. These days, he only goes to the casino for family buffets but admits sometimes he does get the urge. But it is not like before.

"I am much better now," he said. "My counselling sessions have dropped from once a fortnight to now once a month."

These days instead of playing pokies, he spends more time with family and playing sport.

"I have two girls now and I want to help others with the same addiction as me.”

*Steve is not his real name.