10 May 2015

Gambling's toll on new migrants

6:27 am on 10 May 2015

Gambling experts say greater numbers of new migrants are becoming addicted to gambling in New Zealand, with some losing their life savings.

Gambling. Dice

Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

They say casinos are targeting migrants, who often come with all their savings in cash, after selling up to move here.

One man who became hooked is Star*, who spoke to Radio New Zealand through an interpreter.

He came to New Zealand in 2001 as a student. He had already become hooked on gambling in China, but there were tight rules there - it was mostly underground sports betting.

But the rules were different when he arrived in New Zealand, where he could legally play on the pokies through the night.

"So it's almost like every day after school, I would go to the pokie bars. Some of the pokie bars close at midnight; I would then go to another one that was open 24 hours."

When he was old enough, he went to casinos, gambling for eight hours at a time, going home to sleep, then going back and gambling for another eight hours straight.

He was continually asking for money from his parents in China, but that disappeared on tables and into machines.

His habit was crippling - for over two years, he lost $1000 a week, and had to ask friends for help if he wanted to eat.

"So the immediate effect I could see is irregular meals. You know, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

"Daily expenses were significantly cut down, and sometimes I even needed to borrow money from his friends."

Star's story is not unique.

John Wong is the director of the Asian Family Services Group in Auckland. He said there were others who had lost far more than Star - even their homes.

"They've lost everything already. One of the housewives came to us saying that, yesterday, the debt collector, come wanting to collect the house.

"'I didn't know our house has been gone, I didn't know our bank account had no money there,' she said. So therefore they come to us, at that time it's so serious."

Migration into New Zealand is strong.

According to census data, the number of Chinese immigrants has risen from just over 100,000 in 2001 to about 170,000 people in 2013.

In the same timeframe, the number of Vietnamese immigrants almost doubled to 6500, and people from Thailand went from 4000 to 8500.

Mr Wong said new arrivals were far more vulnerable, as all their assets are in the cash they have with them.

"They have lots of time, and the casino is there, and then they have cash. So while they're in their home country, they may also gamble, but most of their capital is in business or in assets.

"One of the clients came to us saying, 'our family is coming next week. I lost all of my money already. How can I deal with it?'"

Mr Wong said one way migrants were targeted was through festivals.

He said there were more celebrations for Chinese festivals, even the lesser-known ones, than there were for something like Matariki.

Professor Peter Adams, at the University of Auckland's Centre for Addiction Research, agreed migrants were worth the effort to entice in.

"The Asian migrants have been consistently targeted by the casinos in a variety of ways.

"I would imagine this is in recognition of how asset-rich new migrants are highly desirable to the industry."

In a statement, SkyCity said it did not target any specific ethnic group, or migrants, new or otherwise, and its events were for all New Zealanders to appreciate.

Research carried out by Professor Adams' team two years ago showed problem gambling was an emerging mental health issue for Asian migrants, which had devastating consequences on people's ability to settle successfully.

Professor Adams is now worried about future generations, and beyond the new migrants to their children.

"Younger people with lower levels of cultural connectedness who are perhaps less engaged with cultural activities are slightly more vulnerable.

"And this is consistent with another area of research we're looking at, which is (...) youth gambling - that when young people are less connected to their home, schools and family, it looks like they're more likely to run into problems with gambling."

Professor Adams said, as immigration grows in New Zealand, so too will the number of migrants who arrive and develop gambling addictions, and community groups like Asian Family Services will be put under increasing pressure.

*Star was offered anonymity, and chose to be known by this name.

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