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The return of expatriates is the key to maintaining population growth

Migration has had a greater influence on population growth in New Zealand and Australia than on most other countries in the world. About half of New Zealand's population was either born overseas or has a parent who was born overseas. Historically, while natural increase (excess of births over deaths) has provided an almost stable contribution to population change, arrivals and departures of permanent and long-term (PLT) migrants have resulted in cycles of high net gains followed by years with net losses.

Among OECD countries, New Zealand is unique in having the highest rate per capita of both immigration and emigration. Attention has been focused on the large numbers of people leaving New Zealand, with over half a million Kiwis living long-term or permanently overseas. The contention is that some of these people might be encouraged to return to live in New Zealand.

Has the return of expatriates contributed to changes in population growth?

New Zealanders returning to live in New Zealand contributed about half of all PLT arrivals in 1990. More recently however, arrivals of New Zealand citizens have made up less than 30 percent of all PLT arrivals, down to 27.5 percent in 2011. So while an increasing number of people have been arriving in the country on a PLT basis, the number of returning New Zealanders has averaged at around 24,000 per year, with only marginal variation, since 1990. Overall, the return of expatriates has played an insignificant role in maintaining population growth.

Can population growth be maintained given the projected slowing of natural increase?

Historically, the two significant contributors to changes in population growth have been arrivals of citizens from outside Oceania and departures of New Zealand citizens. Since 1990, changes in immigration policies have supported a significant upward trend in the number of people arriving on a PLT basis from outside Oceania – with highs in 1996 (47,000) and 2008 (66,000), and lows in 1990 (20,000) and 1998 (30,000). These arrivals were offset by the increasing trend for New Zealand citizens, including some naturalised immigrants, to leave the country on a PLT basis – from around 30,000 per year in the early 1990s to around 60,000 per year more recently.

Given the projected slowing of natural increase, the key factors in maintaining population growth will be migration and retention of migrants. However, the return of expatriate New Zealanders is unlikely to make a significant contribution to net migration growth. Kiwis are likely to continue seeking stimulating overseas work experience. A more dynamic and attractive New Zealand labour market, and more attractive living conditions, might encourage some New Zealanders to return and discourage others from leaving. However, the real benefit of better conditions would be increased attractiveness to potential immigrants.


This myth is busted.

About half of the New Zealanders who move overseas remain overseas for a few years and then return. Some people remain permanently overseas. While people migrating to New Zealand tend to compensate for the loss of New Zealand citizens, there are no clear reasons that might entice more New Zealanders to return. Even if a larger proportion did return, this would only provide a temporary change in the trends. Returnees also tend to be older, and as a group have similar fertility patterns to the local population. The potential for this to radically change trends in natural increase is therefore small and, if anything, is likely to slow natural increase further.

How did this myth arise?

Lower levels of fertility and population ageing have put pressure on the labour markets of New Zealand and other OECD countries. Along with the more buoyant economic conditions of the early 2000s, this has resulted in shortages of skilled and unskilled labour. These shortages are likely to continue in the future. Encouraging people, skilled or unskilled, of prime working ages either to stay or to come and live in New Zealand will therefore be a central part of any population policy.

Why is natural increase slowing?

 During the last two decades, natural increase has averaged around 31,000 per year with little variation. However, this is projected to slow over the next 25 years (down to 20,500 in 2030), due to two factors. Firstly, the number of deaths is projected to increase (as the large number of people born during the 1950s to early 1970s reach older ages). Secondly, the number of births is projected to vary very little from the current level.

Is population growth likely to continue?

The projected slowing of natural increase and an assumed annual net migration gain of 10,000 will result in population growth being sustainable, but at a reducing rate (from 1.0 percent population growth in 2008 to 0.6 percent in 2030). The most uncertain component in population growth is gain from PLT migration, and projection series allow this component to average out as a constant or a cyclical contribution to population growth.

What are the cyclical characteristics of permanent and long-term migration?

Over the last two decades, the cyclic behaviour of net PLT migration showed large net gains in 1995–96 and again in 2002–03, whereas there were net losses in 1989 and 1998–2000. Analysing net migration by citizenship revealed a strongly cyclical, and increasing, trend of net migration gains of citizens from outside the Oceanic region. This was offset by consistent net migration losses of New Zealand citizens. These losses also display a cyclical pattern: large losses in 2000 (38,000) and 2008 (37,000), and small losses in 1991 (6,000) and 2003 (11,000). By contrast, net migration of citizens from other Oceanic countries has only increased slightly over this time period (1,000 in 1992 and 5,000 in 2008).

For your information

International Travel and Migration – information releases 
Statistics on the number of overseas visitors, New Zealand resident travellers, and PLT migrants entering or leaving New Zealand.

National Population Projection – information releases
Summary of the projected population of New Zealand, based on different combinations of fertility, mortality, and migration assumptions.

Published 22 June 2012, based on information previously published on 8 May 2009.

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