Census 2013: Immigration at new high

By Susan Edmunds

Immigration statistics this week are expected to reveal New Zealand's biggest population gain in a decade - a dramatic about-turn from the brain drains of the past 10 years. Our house prices are high, our wages are low - so why is the world coming home to New Zealand?

Bjorn Andersson and Tiina Lyttinen with their two children Dane, 13 and Linn, 11. Photo / Martin Hunter
Bjorn Andersson and Tiina Lyttinen with their two children Dane, 13 and Linn, 11. Photo / Martin Hunter

Growing up in Adelaide, Haley Young Macklin had heard stories about the number of Kiwis jumping the Ditch for a better life in Australia. But it wasn't until she moved to Brisbane that it hit home just how many there were.

Kiwi uni students were the butt of jokes about the country's cricket prowess; distinctive tattoos peeked out from under sleeves rolled up in the Brisbane heat and Maori kids in neighbourhood playgrounds called out to children of other Kiwi families.

Two years later, Young Macklin was selling furniture on an online auction site to more Kiwis as she prepared to move with her husband, James Perrin, to New Zealand.

"One of the women who bought furniture off us, who was Maori, was trying to teach me to say 'Maori' as I wasn't pronouncing it right. She told me it's similar to 'mouldy', so that's how I remember now."

The 25-year-old and Perrin, 24, have done what even a year ago would have been nearly unthinkable: the Aussies have left Australia for better job opportunities in Auckland.

Both are university graduates but Perrin wasn't able to find a suitable engineering role in Australia. Young Macklin blames politics and says economic uncertainty has made employers hesitant to hire. When he was offered a job at Lion in Auckland, the couple thought, why not?

Setting up home in Drury, South Auckland, Young Macklin says she can't get over how beautifully green the country is. Neighbours are friendly and the house suits perfectly, although their rent is a little more. Perrin loves his job, rates the work-life balance he's getting - and Lion's staff bar doesn't hurt, either.

Immigration statistics show the couple are no longer the exception to the rule. As the Kiwi economy strengthens and its neighbour across the Tasman softens, New Zealand is starting to look a lot more tempting to those considering a move - and a much better bet to Kiwis deciding to stay.

Immigration statistics due out this week are expected to reveal the biggest population gain in a decade.

In August last year, Prime Minister John Key blamed the global financial crisis for 53,900 people having moved to Australia the previous year.

But the trend started to turn at the beginning of 2013 and in October alone New Zealand gained an extra 4000 people - a number that hasn't been seen since 2003.

Our airport's international arrival terminals have been busy. Statistics New Zealand says 92,100 migrants arrived in the year to October, up 9 per cent on the year before.

The number of New Zealand residents moving overseas dropped 14 per cent in the same period, giving us a net population gain of 17,500 migrants in the past year. The monthly statistics to be released this week are expected to show the same trend. Just 900 people moved to Australia in October this year, compared with 3300 last December.

A Herald on Sunday-Key Research poll has found Kiwis are now more likely to prefer New Zealand as a place to live than Australia, when compared with last year. But of those in their prime working years (aged 25 to 44) 14 per cent would still choose Australia.

One of the most obvious drawcards for migrants to New Zealand is the Christchurch rebuild. Immigration advisers in the city say we haven't seen anything yet.

The rebuild is tipped to begin in earnest near the end of the next year, and will continue for years. New Zealand does not have enough skilled workers for the job and is drawing in foreigners to satisfy demand. Webcasts have been held in Britain to tempt engineers and construction workers to the city.

The current list of skill shortages includes drainlayers, foremen, engineers, surveyors and project managers.

Mike Bell, a licensed immigration adviser at NZ Immigration and Settlement Services in Christchurch, says tradespeople are being snapped up, as are people with quantity surveying and engineering experience.

"All the local workers were employed long ago."

People with in-demand skills have the city at their feet, he says. "Highly skilled workers can shop around. We had one guy who had five job interviews and five offers. If they have the right skills, they're desperately needed."

Many young Irish men have come into Christchurch to work on construction jobs, he says. But while they might stay long enough to register in the migration stats, they will move on once the job is finished. "There's a lot of work that will be kicking off all in one go, the current level is still relatively low, just bubbling away."

The Christchurch earthquakes have made it harder for employers to find skilled workers in the city in general, as many people left after the quakes and haven't returned.

Bjorn Andersson and Tiina Lyttinen moved from Sweden in search of a warmer climate. Finding a job in Christchurch was much easier than anywhere else in the country. Lytinnen works as a florist. Andersson, who struggled to get an interview in Auckland, had two job offers in Christchurch before he even arrived in March.

He has accepted a role working on Christchurch City Council's computer systems. The council had been trying to find someone with the appropriate skills for some time.

The couple considered Southern Europe as a possible home but picked New Zealand because their children had already learned English at school and wouldn't have to try to pick up another language here. Now they're enjoying school and their new house, and Andersson and Lyttinen have got used to driving on the left side of the road.

Andersson says the only downfall is that Christchurch isn't quite as warm as they might have liked. They may eventually try to move further north to chase their dream of hot, sunny weather.

Getting approval to move to New Zealand was a straightforward process for Andersson, thanks to his job offer.

Sixty per cent of migrants arrive under the skilled migrant and business categories. A points system determines who qualifies, based on employment, qualifications, work experience, skills and age.

That's unusual by international standards, says Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley, deputy vice-chancellor of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University.

Just 35 per cent of migrants come to New Zealand by way of family reunification, compared with 60 per cent in the United States.

"New Zealand has a very explicit recruitment focus of bringing in skilled migrants to New Zealand."

However, it's still not common for skilled migrants to be able to find a job that actually fits those skills, he says, except for those who can work within the health system.

It takes a typical immigrant 12 years to get the same wages and type of job that a New Zealand-qualified person would get.

The "start-up spend" of new immigrants to this country is significant, Spoonley says, as people buy a house, furnish it and buy a car. But most come with some capital behind them to do that. Contrary to popular perceptions, Spoonley says most immigrants remain here rather than moving on to Australia or back to their home countries.

Immigration adviser Doreen Bennett says about one in five of the people who contact her do meet the criteria and are able to go through with the move.

She says demand for residency is increasing from people who have migrated from around the world to Australia. Many have been studying there for several years but have found they cannot get permanent residency across the Tasman.

"Our laws are still what they are but Australia has tightened up chronically. So there's been a surge of interest from people who are able to get residency here, because they have the skills and points."

Most new arrivals come from Australia (18,537) and Britain (14,312), some of whom are Kiwis returning home. China contributed 5500 migrants, with India and the Philippines rounding out the top five.

The rising tide of immigration may be an endorsement of New Zealand's environment and economy, but it can provoke an ugly backlash of resentment.

The Asian population of New Zealand has increased from 6.6 per cent of the population in 2001 to 11.8 per cent this year. Nearly two-thirds of them live in Auckland.

The Herald on Sunday-Key Research poll shows some people don't like the change: 37 per cent of respondents said there were too many immigrants; 16 per cent were equivocal about it; some didn't want migrants of certain nationalities and ethnicities; others were concerned about whether they had sufficient skills or financial independence.

According to the 2013 Census, 31.6 per cent of New Zealanders who were born overseas were from Asia. The numbers of Chinese-born migrants are second only to those from the UK. Hindi is now the fourth most common language in New Zealand behind English, Maori and Samoan.

NZ First leader Winston Peters ably stoked the fire earlier this year with claims that Chinese migrants were creating a "Supercity of sin".

Yesterday, he said most migrants came into the country under the skilled category, but many did not have the skills needed by the New Zealand economy. "Otherwise, how do you explain the number of taxi drivers?"

New Zealand authorities were committing fraud and abuse of the migrants, he said, by leading them to believe they would be able to get a job in their professional field in this country.

While your new British neighbour may settle in easily, migrants with darker skin or foreign-sounding surnames often find it more difficult.

AUT lecturer Dr Camille Nakhid remembers arriving in New Zealand from Trinidad and Tobago 20 years ago. "The first thing I saw in the airport were these big white guys in shorts and socks and shoes. I cracked up laughing and thought, 'what a dress sense'. But then I drove to the gas station and it was a bit rundown and it reminded me of home. I saw Maori and Pacific Island people I never even knew existed."

Seeing darker faces made Nakhid feel more comfortable, but she says there are still a lot of hurdles for migrants who don't look European.

Too many people are oversold promises, she says. "People can meet the criteria but whether they can find employment here is a different thing. If you do have an accent, or your last name is not European, there are a number of things that can be not in your favour, even if you meet the criteria. That's why a lot of migrants become self-employed."

More support is needed for organisations that help people settle in New Zealand, she says. They are often the groups who help give new Kiwis the confidence to make their new life here work.

"Also, they need to make what's on the migration website realistic. You do have to spend lots of money to move here, they probably won't get the job they had overseas and they will start a bit lower."

She says most people move to New Zealand wanting better for their children. "They think of their children and the prospects for them, that's what drives most people.

"What people really want when they migrate here is a fair chance."

Betty Liu moved to New Zealand three years ago with a student visa. Now she is employed with Banana Works in Auckland, a company that provides cross-cultural communications, and says she considers herself lucky for how smooth the move was. Coming from China, she relishes the weather, clean air and the laidback lifestyle.

Changing migration figures don't just give a boost to Auckland, says Westpac chief economist Dominick Stephens. Regional New Zealand may be benefiting from fewer people packing up and moving on.

"There are fewer New Zealanders leaving for Australia because the Australian economy is faltering and New Zealand's is strengthening," he says. "People who leave have been more likely to go from other parts of New Zealand, outside Auckland. So the headwinds for the regions are a bit lighter."

Professor Natalie Jackson, of Waikato University, says migration is a short-term solution to keep the age structure of our population balanced. "It's a time when we need to take as many as would like to come here, and offer them citizenship to encourage them to stay in the hope they will bring other people."

In Drury, Young Macklin is now pregnant with the couple's first child - a little Australian-New Zealander. And she thinks more Australians will follow in her family's footsteps. Already, her extended family members are lining up to book a spot in the spare room - they'll have visitors for six months of next year.

She's had a brief moment of homesickness, while on the phone to her mum. "But that was more because I was talking to my mum than anything else. I'm shocked more Aussies don't move here."

Drury, with its wide open spaces and community, feels a bit like the Adelaide Hills area where the couple spent some university years. But for now, it's got much better prospects.

- Herald on Sunday

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