Immigration: numbers and options

On the off chance that anyone thinking about negotiations with New Zealand First might also be considering immigration policy options, I thought it might be time for a refresher on the numbers (as well as yet another dig at MBIE for not making accessible data readily available on a timely basis).  Since much of the accessible data MBIE do release is for June years, for this post I’ll mostly use data for the year to June 2017.

Recall that the headline writers focus on net permanent and long-term migration, calculated from the declared intentions of those (New Zealanders and foreigners) crossing the border.  If you are leaving and expect to be away for at least 12 months, or are a non-resident arriving and expect to be here for at least 12 months, you are in the PLT statistics.   Plans do change, but the new 12/16 data I wrote about a few weeks ago suggests that during the current cycle the PLT numbers have been capturing pretty well not just declared intentions but what actually happened.    In the year to June 2017, a net 72,305 people arrived as PLT migrants.   Just slightly more than that number of non-New Zealand citizens arrived, and 1284 New Zealanders (net) left.

PLT sept 17

As people often stress, a lot of the variance in the net PLT series is typically accounted for by changes in the choices of New Zealanders (net outflows have fluctuated between around 0 and around 40000, and there have been quite big fluctuations –  hard to predict –  every few years).  The choices of New Zealanders are not a matter of immigration policy.

But policy has pretty full control over the number of non-citizens arriving (Australians are allowed in without advance specific approval, although the numbers typically aren’t large).   And sometimes you will see this chart, which uses PLT arrivals data (gross, not net) to show what sort of visa people were on when they crossed the border as PLT arrivals (the “not applicables” are New Zealand and Australian citizens).

PLT arrivals by visa

But this chart doesn’t tell us anything much about immigration policy.  In the year to June 2017, 16711 people arrived on residence visas.  But during that year, MBIE granted 47331 residence visas, the overwhelming proportion to people who were already here (and who typically will have entered first on a student or work visa).  Perhaps it is worth noting, for all the talk of the success of the export education sector, by far the biggest increase in arrivals in recent years (absolute and percentage) has been in people with various types of work visas: around 24000 in the year to June 2012, and around 45000 in the year to June 2017.

If we want to look at immigration itself, it is much better to turn to the administrative data on the numbers of people approved for various classes of visas.  Unfortunately, unless you like playing with spreadsheets with half a million lines, MBIE only produce data annually, for June years, and the data for the year to June 2017 hasn’t yet been released.   Having said that, it doesn’t look as though there will have been big changes when the data do finally emerge.

Here are the numbers for visas granted to new workers under various policies (ie excluding renewals etc).

Number of new workers by policy
2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 2015/16
Study to work 9,319 9,131 6,259 9,610 16,097
Essential skills 6,197 6,247 7,885 7,709 8,334
Work to residence 1,653 1,558 1,426 1,483 1,717

and there has been a big increase in the numbers granted working holiday visas

2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 2015/16
Working holidays 41,561 47,168 53,131 59,742 63,230

Fortunately, Education New Zealand don’t seem to mind the half million line spreadsheets, and produce a nice monthly product on student visas.   Here is the chart of outstanding valid student visas by class of institution for the last few years.


Numbers are growing, but in the last year or two there has been quite a switch from private training enterprises (which will have included some of the more questionable institutions/courses) towards universities in particular).

What of residence approvals?  I did download the huge spreadsheet for that subset of the data to get an overview of the 2016/17 numbers.  Here are residence approvals in the last few years.

Number of residence visas approved
2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 2015/16 2016/17
40,448 38,961 44,008 43,085 52,052 47331

Recall that (a) there is a “planning range” (in effect, a target) for the number of residence approvals granted. That range was 45000 to 50000 per annum, but was cut to 42500 to 47500 late last year.  Actual approvals fluctuate around the target, rather than being mechanically managed to meet it month by month or year by year.  The 2015/16 approvals were high, but the numbers have been cut somewhat in the most recent year.

Recall that most of those getting residence visas were already living here (on work, study, or related visas).

In terms of nationality, in 2015/16 these were the top source countries

China 9,360
India 8,498
United Kingdom 4,934
Philippines 4,614
South Africa 2,970
Fiji 2,230
Samoa 2,156
United States 1,288
South Korea 1,125

I didn’t calculate all the numbers for 2016/17, but the patterns looked pretty similar.

I hadn’t seen this data in the published MBIE summaries, but I was a little surprised to find that among the residence approvals 1937 were for people in a category of

Uncapped Family Sponsored Stream Dependant Child

These aren’t the children of principal applicants who are themselves getting residence visas (as those children are approved with the parents).   Around half of all these “dependent children” were Samoan, and of them 242 were aged 20-29, not typically what one thinks of when one hears of “dependent children”.   I’m not sure how or why such a policy exists, but when I get time I might have a dig around.

So that is the numbers.  Perhaps the key thing to keep in mind is that the residence approvals planning range –  the centrepiece of the immigration programme –  has been pretty stable for a long time (modest cut last year).  Much of the variability in the headline PLT numbers is New Zealanders, and most of the variability in the non-NZ net inflow relates to policy streams other than the residence approvals programme.

Of course, variability is only part of the picture.  The striking thing about the residence approvals programme is its sheer size: equivalent to almost 1 per cent of the population each year, and in per capita terms three times the size of the US “green card” issuance (under both recent administrations).   We have a very large number of legal temporary foreign workers here by international standards, but most of them will eventually go home.  What really marks us out is the size of the residence approvals programme –  bigger per capita than in almost any OECD country, and far bigger than most.   I’ve argued for cutting programme back to, say, 10000 to 15000 per annum (a similar size, per capita, to the US programme.)

As I’ve noted here previously, if one looks at the New Zealand First website there isn’t much specific on immigration policy.   Winston Peters has sometimes talked of lowering the annual inflow to something like 10000 to 15000, but quite what is meant by that hasn’t been clear.  Most naturally he may have wished to suggest a net PLT inflow of around those numbers.  If so, it would have to be treated as an average over time, since annual PLT flows are almost wholly unpredictable (given the variability in the net flow of New Zealanders).

Having said that, one could make some estimates of a trend net outflow of New Zealanders, likely to resume as the Australian labour market improves.   Assume that outflow is 20000 on average over the cycle (a bit less than in the past), and you might lower the residence approvals target to 30000 to 35000 per annum (the net of the two flows on average producing something like a 10000 to 15000 inflow per annum).  That doesn’t sound terribly radical, and frankly there looks to be plenty of room to (a) drop off the lower-skilled portion of the current approvals, while (b) removing the sort of absurd bureaucratic hassles really skilled people (eg the teachers profiled in the Herald the other day) can face.

One of the other, rather general, strands of New Zealand First’s immigration policy is

Ensure that there is effective labour market testing to ensure New Zealanders have first call on New Zealand jobs.

I’m sceptical of the practical means to do this, even if I’m somewhat sympathetic to the concerns that motivate it.  I don’t think bureaucrats should be trying to decide which job is really in excess demand, let alone try to reach Soviet-type judgements on which regions should be favoured, or whether wages for those particular skills should just be left to rise.  But in various recent presentations, I have included an option for reforming the work visas system (in addition to substantially tightening up on student work visas and post-study visas, for those with lower level qualifications)

Institute work visa provisions that are:

a) Capped in length of time (a single maximum term of three years, with at least a year overseas before any return on a subsequent work visa), and

b) Subject to a fee, of perhaps $20000 per annum or 20 per cent of the employee’s annual income (whichever is greater).   [To limit risks of exploitation, require the employer to prove that the employee has been paid at least $10000 above the mimimum wage, with no “fees”  allowed to be paid back to the employer or related entities.]

The key element is the second one.  If your firm really needs a highly-skilled person (surgeon, lawyer, CEO or whatever, earning say $200000 or more), and can’t find one on market in New Zealand, the annual fee is unlikely to be prohibitive given the key short-term such a person is like to be playing.   But, equally, there aren’t many of those sorts of people/roles, and many won’t want to stay here forever.  So I’d make it easy to recruit them, but with a strong emphasis (because the visa is non-renewable) on the need to identify a local permanent person.   At the bottom end of the labour market, if the business your firm is doing is really so valuable you can afford the $20000 annual fee on top of the annual salary, that might be a reasonable pointer to serious scarcity.  But it seems unlikely that we’d be granting many visas to lower-end chefs, or dairy workers, or aides in rest homes.  And that would, over time, be a good outcome for New Zealanders.


(And MBIE could you please please make the monthly data more easily available in an accessible format, as Statistics New Zealand and other agencies do.)



24 thoughts on “Immigration: numbers and options

  1. This is a subject I have been interested in ever since the widespread worker exploitation reported in the Herald last December. And of course my family has been through this system 15 years ago so can remember the Kafkaesque bureaucratic weirdness. I think your article explains everything clearly and I had noticed those dependent children of the uncapped family sponsored stream but not checked their ages and nationality.

    Just this weekend I met an immigrant whose work permit had been extended to 5 years. As with every immigrant I meet a really pleasant person – it is surprising that immigrants all seem so friendly and positive (I’m the only irritable immigrant I know) but I’ve not met the five on the Chinese list of economic criminals. However this young man is a baker and judging by where he works probably the majority of his customers will be immigrants too. A really good baker is a great asset to a business so how can we persuade employers to train new Kiwi bakers? I like your solution – force the employer to prove he needs the immigrant by applying a work permit fee. Maybe a fee of $20,000pa is an abrupt change so I would start at a lower amount and increase it every month until we get the numbers New Zealand can handle. There is so much cheating that a major increase in the labour inspectorate is essential but hopefully temporary.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Working Holiday Visas – come in two flavours 12 and 23 month and are supposed to be what the say: part work and part holiday. It is common practice to obtain a 12 month Visa and then extend it while in NZ. Convenient for students on a gap year. One of my relatives only did woofing – that is no paid work and another worked for 8 months and holiday for 4. It should be possible to tweak them to NZ’s advantage: make them more expensive the longer they last, apply an enhanced income tax, adjust quotas by country and of course more labour inspectors. They should be filling temporary jobs not displacing low skilled Kiwis from permanent jobs.

    63,000 is a big number but without statistics who knows how long they actually stay, how long they work, how many jobs they take. In other words are they mainly wealthy tourists or are they desperate low paid workers?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would think that these would be the seasonal workers for the tourism industry and for fruit picking. As prostitution is a legal profession in NZ, I think we have a high influx of working maidens servicing our gentry.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Prostitution is illegal for holders of work and student visas. Judging by the ‘adult services’ page in the Herald I suspect you might be right. More reason for strengthening our labour inspectorate.


  3. I would like to see residence permits reduced to close to zero, with only people we must have allowed to settle here permanently (medical specialists etc). Or else reduce numbers down to around 10,000 and introduce a country quota that keeps our existing race proportions as they are (the USA does this).

    Unless something radical is done, then the future of NZ is to become an asian majority country in few decades, and the law framework and fairly empathetic social structure we are used to probably will change beyond recognition. Polling has shown that asians are right wing voters, and as they are coming in such big numbers now and not assimilating as they did in the past it seems likely that they will change NZ rather than we turn them into traditional kiwis. NZ has been a society of individualists prepared to adhere to the laws of the land and live under a caring government umbrella. I can’t see that lasting when the people migrating here in huge numbers appear to be tribal and loyal mostly to their own race, and come from places where corruption is endemic.

    Currently we have around 100,000 new residents in NZ pa (approx 50,000 births and 50,000 migrants with resident permits) The migrants are mostly asian and are young and reproductive age. Of the births, around 25,000 are european kiwi and around 12,000 are maori. So of our future breeding stock, the two races who created NZ are reduced to a minority of just over a third in 2017. As the years go by, the percentage of european kiwi and Maori births will continue to fall as the numbers of asians grow, so NZ as we knew it, as a british/maori partnership, will in a few decades just be a memory.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I thought the US still ran a per country quota system. Where no more than 7% of visas can be issued to natives of any one particular country

        Also there is a green card lottery system which is stacked in favour of people from certain regions.

        Proponents of immigration often talk up the value of diversity, but if diversity is so valuable why don’t we ensure a more diverse group of immigrants ? Adding one more person from China, UK, India, South Africa doesn’t add much to the diversity of NZ.

        Liked by 2 people

      • The green card lottery allocations are mostly to make up for “underrepresentation” of particular groups. Prior to 1965, they had a system where allocation of all residence permits were based on a quota formula related to the ethnic mix of the US at around the time of WW1.


    • NZ does a rules based society but it does not make NZ any less corrupt. Its just that in NZ corruption is done legally. Its called contingencies and we invoice for those bribes making it perfectly legal.


    • NZ is currently 70% Pakeha. For 15% of Maori to have effective control over government and control of the country, you have to either increase the Maori population or you dilute the Pakeha population. Maori have 7 guaranteed Maori Parliament seats. It is a very powerful voting block and under MMP can be the difference in forming a government or not. Gareth Morgan has spent $3 million and did not even get 1 seat. Maori have 7 guaranteed seats.

      The Treaty of Waitangi is a British Crown document with Maori. Maori will never give up that document nor do they wish to become a republic and leave the British commonwealth. Most Maori are Royalists to continue to give the Treaty credence which is a bi-party agreement which means that any other race have no rights under the treaty to rule as the only remaining British subjects under the Treaty of Waitangi is Maori.The rest of us are merely New Zealanders unless you still hold a British passport.

      The Treaty is a colonial document that should just be relegated to the museum.


      • The significance of the Treaty of Waitangi has been in the public domain for many years, long before you arrived here, or, to say it another way you made a decision to migrate to New Zealand with the knowledge you would be subject to the provisions of the Treaty – so you should not complain

        Liked by 1 person

      • Not complaining. Just giving recognition to the very clever strategic move towards the Asian migrant explosion versus white British and why it is not being vehemently opposed by Maori. It is actually quite a smart strategy to dilute Pakeha majority and put Maori in the drivers seat of power.


      • What is of particular interest, is that you interpret as i do, that the Treaty of Waitangi is a bi party agreement between the British Crown settlers and Maori as British subjects which Michael and a few commentators seem to think that the word British has been replaced with all New Zealanders. But this agreement has never been ratified or changed from its original references which means only British settlers and Maori as British subjects are the only 2 parties to this agreement. All other New Zealanders of other nationalities and races are technically excluded.


      • Actually, you rather misrepresent me. I regard the Treaty as having no legal effect except insofar as (and in ways specifically provided for) it is included in NZ legislation. It has political/rhetorical force beyond that of course.


  4. The article mentioned no ethnicity except for mentioning the number of elderly Samoan dependent children. The comments have mentioned ‘Asian’ too often. The argument is about numbers and options. I doubt anyone thinks of themselves as Asian anymore than I used to think of myself as European and now think I am Australasian.

    However in light of recent articles about the influence of the Communist Party of China it would make sense to have a quota that matched mainland Chinese immigrants with opponents such as Falun Gong and Tibetan refugees, Vietnamese and Taiwanese immigrants.
    As an example of how trade relations are imperiled when one party is large, strong and lacking in self-confidence read:
    The academic author writes an article that gives the appearance that it was dictated from Beijing.


  5. The sacred cow that no one wants to talk about is the freedom of movement and work to and from Australia.
    This the major cause of migration instability and the reason it is difficult to predict population changes.
    If there is a loss of freedom of movement, the exchange of peoples to Australia would be likely 1/10 of current levels. Then we can have a reasonable debate.
    This is political suicide for any political party but it is the crux of the migration debate. It is the sacred cow, no ones wants to talk about.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I hope we don’t lose that right of access. It is a safety valve for our own people, that has enabled many to successfully pursue better economic opportunities. But it is interesting to wonder what would happen if Australia was to treat NZers just the same as all other foreigners. Presumably a lot of NZers interested in moving are sufficiently skilled that they might get in on Australia’s standard (points-based) entry provisions, and interest in moving would still fluctuate somewhat depending on the health of the Aus labour market.

      So I’d expect a lower net flow, and a bit less cyclical variability, but not a reduction of the magnitude you suggest.


      • Some young 3rd world immigrants may see NZ as a stepping stone to Australia just as some Chinese and Filipinos did in PNG back in the eighties. So we might end up with a reduction in immigrants.
        However families seem to prefer NZ to Australia – maybe better schools and less perception of racism and violence. Multiculturalism appears to be more prevalent in Australia and the immigrants I meet are happy to occasionally mix with people of the same origin but want to be kiwis not colonists. [I get a genuine pleasure from hearing a Scottish accent but have no wish to live in a transplanted Scottish community.]


      • I do not think many migrants see NZ as a stepping stone initially but many will have left for Australia and that’s why we have 650,000 New Zealanders in Australia. I attribute this to rural drift. Population drifts from rural to towns from smaller towns to larger towns and from smaller cities to larger cities.

        That is why Winston’s new migrant re direction to regional towns is not going to work. It is human nature to want to do better to chase the dream and to earn more than anyone else. Larger cities offer those higher wages and larger corporates for people to improve their careers as they have longer corporate ladders to climb and for small businesses more people to buy their products.

        Liked by 1 person

      • If NZers were sufficiently skilled to gain permanent residence in Australia, we wouldn’t need to have a new pathway for permanent residency agreed to by Turnbull and Key. If one uses a Australian Citizenship as an indicator of the ability to gain PR.
        Of those arriving in Australian from NZ between 2002 and 2011 only 8.4 acquired citizenship and only 3% of Maori. As compared to 90% of non-NZ born population,


  6. Fair point, alho in many cases skilled NZers probably don’t seek residency (young single people not worried too much about tertiary education for their kids or benefit eligibility), and even those who get residency may not see a high value in citizenship.

    So perhaps my estimates of how many NZers would still go anyway are too high, but there would still be quite a bit of cyclical variability.


    • Agreed there still be cyclical variability but it would like comparing waves of the ocean to the local pond. I have been through the points system in Australia to gain permanent residency. I am a medical specialist trained in NZ and I undertook a English Language test to make sure I had sufficient points to gain permanent residency.
      I also had 10 years of experience to add to the points
      English language test is not compulsory if you are from NZ, but good marks will add to the points required.

      For example: if you haven’t had very-good to excellent School Certificate grades in English, it is unlikely that you would accumulate any points in the IELTS for residency. Native speakers do not necessarily attain the highest marks.

      Most Australians and NZers would not qualify for the point-based general permanent residency.


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