Newcomers Plug NZ's Emigration Gap

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It's a tired joke that's been peddled across the Tasman for a long time-that New Zealand can't keep its citizens from flocking to the brighter lights elsewhere. Many New Zealanders do leave home to work overseas, but that's now only half the story: as they fly out, more and more migrants are flying in to take their places.

So much so that the people drain has been reversed: New Zealand Cabinet papers show that in the year to the end of March, the nation of 3.9 million people had a permanent long-term net migration gain of 25,630, compared to a net loss of 12,590 in the previous year. "We have so much demand at the moment that we can pick the cream of the crop," says a spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Lianne Dalziel. The migration target for 2000-01 was 38,000; in the end, 43,000 people were granted residency. Last year the number rose to 53,000, and the Immigration Service predicts that 75,000 people will apply for the 45,000 immigrant places in 2002-03.

"Absolutely chaotic" is how Bill Milnes, director of Access Immigration New Zealand, describes the past year. Milnes, a member of the ministerial advisory group on immigration, attributes the rush in applications to a tightening of migration rules in Canada, Australia and the U.S.; that, he says, has bumped New Zealand up from "No. 4 on the wish-list" of intending migrants. Some arrivals, he says, did not apply to Australia because they'd heard about Pauline Hanson-even though they knew the anti-multiculturalist politician was no longer in Parliament. Other factors boosting New Zealand's appeal include its peaceful image: in the wake of Sept. 11, new migrants and returning expatriates alike regard the country as a sanctuary from terrorism. "They see New Zealand as a happy mix of urban experience and urban buzz-but as lacking some of the excesses of urban life," says Aussie Malcolm, a former immigration minister who is now director of immigration consultancy Malcolm Pacific.

South Africans Ian and Debbie Soanes and their two children tried Australia but found New Zealand friendlier. "It's God's country," says Ian. "It's a bit cold, but that's the only thing I could fault it on." He's now trying to convince "everyone I talk to in South Africa" to make the move.

They'll have to be quick: as demand swells, entry criteria-based on a points system which rewards qualifications and experience-are tightening. Despite debate about the pressures more migrants could put on housing, services and community cohesion, Malcolm says new residents-who are mostly skilled workers or businesspeople-generally "slip straight into the workforce and don't even ruffle the waters."

But as the queues lengthen, so do waiting times. It can be two to three years before would-be migrants learn whether their application has been successful, consultants say. But that isn't dampening their enthusiasm. "The fact that New Zealand is getting harder to get into only seems to make it more attractive to people," says Malcolm.

As the applications pile up, however, immigration consultants are "nervous," says Bill Milnes: "We don't know what the government's thinking. Maybe they'll let the backlog sit there; maybe they'll shut the door and say no more applications for six months." The flood probably won't continue forever-but for now, at least, it's a great time to be in the people-moving business.