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Muriel Newman: The Pandora's Box of Immigration

The Pandora's Box of Immigration
Weekly Column by Dr Muriel Newman

New Zealand is an immigrant nation. Each wave of immigrants is somewhat suspicious of the next. In the beginning, Moriori didn't trust the Maori, and history shows their concerns were justified.

Back in the seventies, British immigrants were the subjects of racial attacks: "Beat a Pom a Day" was a populist cry.

Today the spotlight has moved to Asian immigration. The attack is being lead by New Zealand's Pauline Hanson, Winston Peters. He has opened a Pandora's box of ill-informed racism, prejudice and intolerance.

Over recent years, governments have tried to balance emigration with immigration to maintain population stability. They remain concerned that too many emigrants and too few immigrants can cause depopulation, leading to small business failure and economic downturn.

In 1998, 44,000 New Zealanders left the country permanently and 22,000 returned. The net loss of 22,000 New Zealand nationals was balanced with 29,000 immigrants being granted permanent residence.

By 2001, as a result of the brain drain following Labour's election, emigration had grown to 63,000. With only 21,000 nationals returning, there was a net loss of 42,000 New Zealanders. In response, 43,000 immigrant residence applications were approved.

This year, the threat of international terrorism has caused fewer people to depart - 45,000 - and more to return home - 25,000 - resulting in a net loss of 20,000 New Zealanders. Caught out by the expectation of a greater net loss, the government approved 53,000 residence applications, creating a serious imbalance.

In 1996, the last time such an imbalance occurred, Labour's Immigration Spokesman Annette King attacked the National Government, claiming that Auckland had born the brunt of the Government's "think massive" approach to immigration: "Its roads are clogged, its sewerage and water systems are under strain. Its schools are bursting full. Its hospitals are chronically underfunded for its population. Its housing market has over-heated. Its race relations have suffered."

This time, it is a Labour Government that is panicking. Without warning they raised the immigration qualifying points system criteria, causing widespread outrage.

The racist claims of New Zealand First have caused Labour to panic. Deserting their migrant constituency, they have introduced an English-language test set so high that if New Zealanders were asked to sit it, more than half would fail.

The Auckland Chamber of Commerce has estimated the new language test will cost the country around $2 billion. Already, employer groups are calling for the scheme to be scrapped as they face burgeoning skills shortages. In most cases employers say a lack of English is not a fundamental problem and they cannot understand the government's panic move.

Labour and New Zealand First justify their anti-Asian immigration stance by pointing to the growing number of Asian faces in Queen Street. They conveniently forget that Queen Street is the centre of New Zealand's tourism industry, and that 500,000 of the two million visitors who came to the country last year were from Asia.

Similarly these politicians appear to have conveniently overlooked the fact that 42,000 of the 52,000 international students studying in New Zealand are from Asian countries. A large proportion of their educational institutions are based in central Auckland.

According to the 2001 Census, 237,459 people of Asian ethnic origin groupings are New Zealand citizens. They comprise 6.4 percent of the population. This compares with Europeans who make up 73 percent of the population, Maori 15 percent, and Pacific Islanders 6 percent.

Claims that Asian crime is out of control cannot be backed up by fact. According to the Minister of Justice, Asians are disproportionately under-represented in crime statistics: the conviction rate per 10,000 of population for Maori is 307, for Pacific Islanders 164, for Europeans 63 and for Asians 37.

The reality is that immigration does need to be carefully managed. We want all immigrants to this country, including refugees, to be capable of being self-sufficient and successful. If possible, we want new New Zealanders to have a strong work and family ethic, as well as a deeply held sense of responsibility for building not only their own success but that of the country as well. That is the underlying foundation of any high achieving nation.

Knee-jerk reactions and debate based on perception rather than fact do nothing to help our nation's cause, and much to harm it.


Dr Muriel Newman, MP for ACT New Zealand, writes a weekly opinion piece on topical issues for a number of community newspapers. You are welcome to forward this column to anyone you think may be interested.

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