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by  Ann Beaglehole

Emigrating to a new country is always hard enough, but for refugees it can be devastating. Some New Zealand immigrants have been refugees, who have often endured terror, trauma, and the loss of homes and loved ones before they even begin their journey. Many arrive with nothing but their clothes, unable to speak the language. Life has to be rebuilt from scratch.

New Zealand as a haven

Who are refugees?

Unlike those migrants who make the choice to emigrate, refugees have to leave their homeland because they fear for their lives. They are the casualties of crises such as brutal regimes, civil war, anarchy and famine. Often, they are at risk because of their ethnicity, political beliefs or religion. They may have endured persecution, torture, rape or abduction, or have witnessed killings. Many arrive after perilous journeys and traumatic detention in refugee camps, having lost loved ones, homes, possessions and jobs.

‘The fear is in our bones’

After a year in Auckland, Teuta Fusha, a Kosovar Albanian who fled Serbian persecution, said, ‘To be safe and not to have to think about what might happen tomorrow or what might happen tonight is wonderful.’ Another family member commented, ‘The fear is in our bones. … We are still traumatised. For example today, when … a truck hit its horn, I was jumping. There is fear also when you hear anything that makes a strange noise or when the phone goes.’ 1

The United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as a person who ‘owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country’.

New Zealand’s intakes

Since 1840 New Zealand has given refuge to people from Europe, South America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Some were made more welcome than others – refugee intakes have been larger when there were clear economic benefits for New Zealand. When only humanitarian considerations were involved, intakes were smaller.

More than 20,000 refugees have arrived since 1944, when refugees were first distinguished from other immigrants in official statistics. While the total number is low compared to the many millions of refugees and displaced people in the world, it is high in terms of the country’s population of 4 million.

New Zealand admits refugees under various international agreements. Key agreements are the 1951 United Nations Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. By signing these agreements, New Zealand committed itself to working with the international community to help resolve refugee problems.

  1. New Zealand Herald, 27 May 2000. › Back

1870s–1940s: refugee groups

The first arrivals

Small groups of people who were in effect refugees settled in New Zealand in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Among them were:

  • Danes fleeing suppression of their language and culture under German occupation in the 1870s
  • Jews escaping persecution in Tsarist Russia from the 1880s
  • French Huguenots in the 1890s, also in flight from religious persecution.

Refugees from Nazism, 1933–39

People fleeing Nazism in the 1930s were subject to New Zealand’s Immigration Restriction Act 1931, under which officials could decide who was suitable to enter. The act excluded aliens unless they had guaranteed employment, substantial capital, or particular knowledge or skills. The guidelines meant that most who applied were declined entry, usually on the grounds that they would not be readily absorbed into the population. Nevertheless, about 1,100 mainly Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Nazi Europe were accepted for settlement in the years between the rise of Hitler and the start of the Second World War.

Polish refugees, 1944

New Zealand’s formal refugee resettlement programme is usually considered to have begun in 1944, when some 800 Polish people arrived for the duration of the war. Of this group, 734 were orphaned children. The remainder were their caregivers. Because of the political situation in Poland after 1945, they were accepted for permanent settlement in New Zealand.

1950s–1970s: refugee groups

Displaced persons from Europe, 1949–52

After the Second World War, the New Zealand government was initially reluctant to accept displaced persons from Europe. It finally agreed to admit a limited number. The New Zealand Selection Mission took particular care not to select criminals and collaborators. It also aimed to exclude groups ‘not at one with ourselves’ 1 and stated a preference for people from the Baltic states rather than Jews or Slavs. But displaced persons of many nationalities, including some Jews, were admitted. During this period, between 4,500 and 5,000 people arrived. They were brought to New Zealand on ships provided by the International Refugee Organisation.

Dressing down

A part-Jewish boy, born in Poland when it was under German occupation, came to New Zealand with his parents after the Second World War as a displaced person. He was embarrassed on the first day he went to school in small-town New Zealand:

‘I wore leather pantlets that German children [often] wear. They are very sensible gear as they are almost indestructible. You can even slide round rocks in them. They are ornately patterned. I wore those pantlets to school and all the children laughed at me. I couldn’t understand it. I felt humiliated and embarrassed. I think I got New Zealand pants pretty quickly.’ 2

Hungarian refugees, 1956–58

New Zealand reacted swiftly to the refugee crisis after the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviet-backed Communist regime. Around 1,100 refugees who had fled Hungary were accepted. The welcome given them was warmer because of Cold War politics between the Communist Soviet Union and the West. The fact that the refugees were white, and were expected to be an economic asset, contributed to the government’s positive response.

‘Handicapped’ refugees, 1959

‘Handicapped’ refugees were those regarded as hard to settle for such reasons as ill health, disability, advanced age, or having large numbers of dependent children. In 1959, New Zealand became one of the first countries in the world to accept refugee families with handicapped members. By 1963, New Zealand had resettled over 200 such families.

Chinese refugees, 1962–71

Civil war and the establishment of a Communist government in China created large waves of Chinese refugees from the 1940s. New Zealand’s response was slow, probably due to a reluctance to resettle refugees who were not white.

Eventually, small numbers were accepted. In 1962, 50 Chinese orphans from Hong Kong were admitted for adoption by New Zealand families. For a few years in the late 1960s there was a quota of six families a year. Twelve Chinese families from Indonesia were admitted in 1967.

Russian Christians from China, 1965

In 1965, New Zealand accepted 80 members of a community of Russian fundamentalist Christians known as the Old Believers. They had fled to China to escape persecution, and were regarded by the international community as hard to resettle because they insisted on being accepted in large groups.

Czechoslovak refugees, 1968–71

A refugee crisis was created by the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. New Zealand was keen to accept a small number of Czechoslovak refugees as a further gesture against Communism in the Cold War. Like the Hungarians, the Czechoslovaks were white and had work skills that New Zealand needed. Around 125 people from Czechoslovakia arrived between 1968 and 1971.

Asians from Uganda, 1972–73

New Zealand responded to international appeals to help Asians expelled from Uganda as part of President Idi Amin’s ‘Africanisation’ policy. In 1972–73, 244 Ugandan Asians arrived.

  1. Quoted in Ann Beaglehole, A small price to pay: refugees from Hitler in New Zealand, 1936–1946. Wellington: Allen & Unwin, 1986, p. 5. › Back
  2. Ann Beaglehole, Facing the past: looking back at refugee childhood in New Zealand, 1940s–1960s. Wellington: Allen & Unwin, 1990, pp. 60–61. › Back

1970s–2003: refugee groups

Chilean refugees, 1974–81

New Zealand accepted 354 of the thousands of Chileans who fled their country after the army’s overthrow of the Allende government in 1973. They were the first refugees assisted by New Zealand’s Interchurch Commission on Immigration and Refugee Resettlement. The commission was founded in 1976 to work with the government on refugee resettlement.

Soviet Jews and Eastern Europeans, 1974–91

Small numbers of refugees from the Soviet Union and other European countries under Soviet domination settled in New Zealand from the 1970s until the downfall of the Communist governments of Eastern Europe. They included:

  • 335 Soviet Jews
  • 507 refugees under the Eastern European quota
  • 292 Poles who fled Poland when it was under martial law, 1981–83.

Refugees from the Middle East, 1970s–90s

People fleeing persecution and wars, including the Iran–Iraq war, began arriving from the Middle East in the 1970s. A group of Baha’i refugees from Iran arrived in 1979. Between 1987 and 1989, a further 142 Iranian Baha’is settled in New Zealand.

Assyrian Christians who had escaped from Iraq to refugee camps in Greece started arriving in the mid-1980s – around 140 refugees came between 1985 and 1989. Others from the Middle East included Iraqi soldiers who deserted after the 1991 Gulf war.

South-East Asian (Indochinese) refugees, 1975–94

The Vietnam War and its aftermath led to thousands of Vietnamese risking voyages on overcrowded, scarcely seaworthy vessels to escape from Vietnam. Some of these Vietnamese boat people came to New Zealand. Cambodians and Laotians also fled invasion, repression and persecution. Between 1977 and 1993, 5,200 Cambodians, 4,500 Vietnamese and 1,200 Laotians were accepted for settlement in New Zealand.

Diverse arrivals, 1992–2003

Small groups of refugees entered New Zealand in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They included 94 Somalis who had fled civil war, drought and famine between 1992 and 1994. These were the first people to come to New Zealand from Africa in significant numbers. By 2006 there were 1,857 Somalis in New Zealand. Some had arrived as refugees, and others had emigrated under the family reunification scheme. From 2000 to 2003, around 1,800 Zimbabweans fleeing government persecution were granted permanent residence.

Boat boys

Among the Afghan refugees rescued by the Norwegian freighter Tampa were several teenage boys, who had made their escape without their parents or siblings. They were eventually admitted to New Zealand. ‘I want to stay here,’ said one. ‘I want to be here forever. But I want to be in Afghanistan too, but only if there is going to be peace.’ He had had no contact with his family. ‘I am worried. … It’s difficult to be without family.’ 1

Bosnian refugees arrived in New Zealand between 1992 and 1995, after conflict in the former Yugoslavia resulted in the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War. In 1998–99 the government agreed to accept about 600 displaced people from Kosovo.

In the late 1990s small groups were accepted from a range of countries including Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iran and the Sudan. About 130 refugees from Afghanistan who had been on board the ship Tampa were accepted for settlement in 2001, after Australia made it difficult for them to stay in that country.

  1. Sunday Star Times, 31 May 2002. › Back

Controlling the flow of refugees

The refugee quota programme

In 1987 the government agreed to accept (subject to community sponsorship) an annual quota of 800 people who were classified as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This formalised New Zealand’s previously ad hoc response to refugee situations.

Over the years the quota programme has included a number of categories, such as specific ethnic or national groups, and people with special needs (such as ‘handicapped’ refugees). Other categories in the quota have been ‘protection’, ‘women at risk’, ‘medical’, ‘emergency’ and ‘humanitarian’. There are provisions to admit close family members of refugees already living in New Zealand. In 1997, the government reduced the quota to 750 but agreed to pay travel costs.

By 2003, the quota was being applied to refugees considered in greatest need of resettlement. In addition to UNHCR recognition, selected refugees now have to meet criteria that include being able to be assimilated well in New Zealand.

In 2020, New Zealand accepted a total of 1,500 refugees per year – COVID-19 restrictions aside.

Safe in their beds

Svea Hurd arrived with her three young children from strife-torn Zimbabwe under the refugee quota programme. On her first night she was hugely relieved to put her children to bed without fearing they might be gone in the morning. ‘People are sleeping with shotguns under their beds. I was too scared to leave the children on the farm so I took them to work with me. Farmers in our town are being beaten, hit and abused. … It was a hard decision to leave, but the children come first and they have to be safe.’ 1

Asylum seekers

In addition to New Zealand’s intake under the quota, small numbers of asylum seekers entered from the early 1980s. Asylum seekers endeavour to establish their UNHCR refugee status after arriving. Their claims are assessed under the 1951 United Nations Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. The Refugee Status Branch of the New Zealand Immigration Service grants or declines applications for refugee status. The Refugee Status Appeal Authority hears and determines appeals against decisions of the Refugee Status Branch.

In response to the increasing numbers of asylum seekers since the late 1980s, the government introduced regulations and new laws designed to:

  • hasten the determination of refugee status
  • allow for the faster removal of people who are unlawfully in New Zealand
  • allow for the detention of asylum seekers while their cases are assessed.

The wider picture

New Zealand’s practices regarding refugees are linked with the country’s changing foreign relations, and its economic, labour market, and immigration policies. They have also evolved in response to the numerous refugee crises since the Second World War.

Under the refugee quota, the admission of selected UNHCR-mandated refugees from increasingly diverse backgrounds has become an ongoing humanitarian priority in New Zealand’s immigration policy.

    • New Zealand Herald, 25 April 2000. › Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ann Beaglehole, 'Refugees', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2021)

Story by Ann Beaglehole, published 8 Feb 2005