1 Oct 2020

Return of New Zealanders: theme of migration in 2020 - professor

1:58 pm on 1 October 2020

Leaving for overseas has been a rite of passage for young New Zealanders for decades, but Covid-19 has prompted thousands of migratory Kiwis to return.

Passengers from international flights at Auckland Airport on Monday 27 January, after flights from Guangzhou and Shanghai had touched down.

File photo. Photo: RNZ / Liu Chen

However, beyond the raw numbers, little is known about who exactly is coming back and how long they are staying for.

At least one economist says claims that there's a big influx of long-term returnees is a myth.

Mark is in managed isolation at the Pullman Hotel in Auckland with his partner and their two children.

The family accelerated plans to return from Sydney when coronavirus started affecting his job security.

"In Australia, we are not entitled to much of a social safety net, we get medicare and things like that. I certainly felt more vulnerable. I had a 20 percent pay reduction and not being an Australian citizen we didn't have access to Centrelink and all its benefits."

Mark told Morning Report he knew several expats who had brought forward plans to return.

"I've also heard the same from a couple of friends in Europe that they're looking to come back but they kind of need to stay put now while they have a job ... a few others [are] considering it in the next six months mainly those ones based in Australia."

In the year ending June, New Zealand received 159,046 "permanent migrants" - that is people intending to spend 12 out of the next 16 months in New Zealand - thousands more than usual, as a result of the initial surge of people coming home early due to Covid.

This compares with between 135,944 and 146,336 in the previous five years.

Massey University sociology professor Paul Spoonley said New Zealand has just knocked out a major part of its skills supply in terms of both temporary and permanent overseas migrants.

"And the returning New Zealanders are mostly it so we need to understand where they can fill gaps and what other gaps are not going to be filled by returning New Zealanders."

Spoonley said there was a need for better data collection at the border.

Professor Paul Spoonley says it's impossible to measure the full scale of hate speech.

Massey University sociology professor Paul Spoonley. Photo: RNZ / Katie Scotcher

Statistics New Zealand data shows that since the 20 March, 66,200 New Zealand citizens have arrived in the country, and 25,100 departed.

The figures for August and September are provisional, but of the more than 30,000 total arrivals between April and July, 4000 were New Zealand citizens coming back to settle for at least 12 months.

Westpac chief economist Dominick Stephens said there was no flood of New Zealanders coming home to roost - in fact there were fewer returning than usual.

"It's a complete myth. The number of New Zealanders entering New Zealand from overseas each week is about a third of the normal number. It is actually an incredibly low number of people entering the country."

Stephens said with no foreigners coming into the country and hardly anyone leaving, net migration had gone from 40,000 a year just before Covid to effectively zero.

If re-elected, a Labour-led government will allocate 10 percent of managed isolation places to critical workers, which will allow about 1400 into the country each month.

But there is a question of how people can actually get to New Zealand.

Travel Agents Association president Brent Thomas, from House of Travel, said flights were significantly more expensive, which could be a barrier for some.

"It's not a matter of just jumping on old routes and coming back the way that you've always done. It's about how do you actually get through, which borders, whether you need quarantine versus where can you just transit, so it is very complex to come back from certain parts of the world and that's why people are using travel agents."

In a written statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) said it had provided consular assistance to many thousands of New Zealanders who were overseas when the pandemic hit.

"With air corridors now open to most parts of the globe, the majority of those Kiwis wanting to return have done so.

"But we know small numbers of Kiwis who have remained overseas longer than planned due to the cost, limited availability or cancellation of flights. MFAT keeps a close eye on situations that impact on New Zealanders' ability to return home, it provides consular assistance where requested."

Spoonley said it was not known how many of the New Zealanders will eventually return.

"I suspect there are quite a few who are sitting bedsits in London or in a flat in Sydney just waiting for things to improve, and when they don't improve they will continue to come back to New Zealand.

"So the return of New Zealanders is going to be one of the key themes of migration in 2020. We just don't know how big or how long it's going to exist."

However, Spoonley said colleagues in Europe were projecting it could be 2023 or even 2024 before international mobility returned to normal.

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