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Are more Kiwis coming home, or just not leaving?

This analysis draws on our July 2021 Coming home, or not leaving? Changing migration patterns in New Zealand for WSP and the Helen Clark Foundation, as part of WSP Future Ready®.

Migration patterns around the world have been upended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with border restrictions, COVID-19 outbreaks, and different economic performances changing where people move to and from. New Zealand’s migration patterns haven’t escaped this upheaval, with net migration collapsing since the pandemic emerged. But with the world starting to reopen, what might be in store for Kiwis both here in New Zealand and overseas? Far from being a brain gain, New Zealand might face a brain drain of current talent. 

How many people are actually returning home?

There’s been significant media and policy attention paid to the “brain gain” of returning New Zealanders over the past 18 months, particularly in terms of its supposed effects on the property market. Although there have been people returning to New Zealand, the collapse in non-New Zealander arrivals means that population growth is now significantly slower than it was prior to COVID-19. Monthly net migration into New Zealand has averaged just 445 people since COVID-19 hit, compared to over 5,200 per month in the five years prior to the pandemic (see Chart 1).

The large number of people coming into New Zealand through Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) facilities has bolstered the perception that there’s more people coming to New Zealand. Between 26 March 2020 and 23 July 2021, 157,143 people had been through MIQ, an average of around 324 per day. But many of these returnees are people who are expected to be here for a shorter period of time, or who have returned from short-term trips overseas (for example, having been on holiday prior to COVID-19 breaking out). Total migrant arrivals are estimated by Stats NZ to total around 45,000 since the start of April 2020.

Migration estimates from Stats NZ show arrivals of New Zealanders increasing at the end of 2019 and in early 2020. Some of this lift will be due to NZ citizens, who might have been expecting to be in the country for less than 12 months, ending up staying far longer as the borders closed, and therefore being counted as migrant arrivals.

It’s people staying around that has changed NZ’s migration dynamic

As Chart 2 shows, NZ citizen migrant arrivals are sitting lower than prior to the pandemic, with fewer than 25,000 NZ citizen arrivals in the year to April 2021. However, the key change in migration trends of NZ citizens recently has been the lack of people leaving like they normally would. Between 2014 and 2019, migrant departures of NZ citizens averaged 40,000-50,000pa. Since COVID-19 has hit the numbers, migrant departures of NZ citizens have fallen to below 9,000pa. 

The lack of departures is understandable – New Zealand’s response to COVID-19 has been among the best in the world and has allowed the economy to pick up strongly. Meanwhile, with COVID-19 rife, other parts of the world have been more dangerous. The larger fall in departures means that New Zealand is recording a net gain of NZ citizens into New Zealand for the first time in at least four decades. As Chart 3 shows, net migration of NZ citizens has turned around from a net annual loss of around 5,000pa in recent years to a net gain of around 20,000pa.

But it’s important to reiterate that the net gain of NZ citizens isn’t because we’re attracting so many people back home. Instead, Fortress NZ is a better place to remain at present, which has stopped many people, who would usually leave New Zealand, from doing so.

Risk of losing people, and not bringing people in, as world reopens

The continued roll-out of vaccines around the world is increasing attention on how the world will eventually reopen. New Zealand has been slower than most to consider how reopening will look like and how border settings might adjust. With the Delta variant raging across the world, and New Zealand’s vaccination rates lower than other areas, such a move remains prudent – for now.

But as the world starts to reopen, there is a mounting risk that the low levels of NZ citizen departures reverses, with NZ citizens looking to move overseas. New Zealand also risks losing some of the people who have come back to New Zealand. A survey by MBIE of MIQ returnees showed 24% would leave New Zealand if the global COVID-19 situation improved.

With the government’s immigration reset poised to limit foreign migrant arrivals into New Zealand, the eventual reopening of the borders might see an outflow of migrants for a period. Limited arrival numbers, coupled with a likely pick-up in NZ citizen departures, and the loss of some returnees back overseas, could produce a short-term brain drain right at the time that businesses are crying out for workers.

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