Last Updated: Friday, 09 October 2015, 14:14 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - New Zealand : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - New Zealand : Overview, 2007, available at: [accessed 10 October 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


New Zealand (Aotearoa) has two main populated islands, the North Island and the South Island. It is relatively thinly populated, especially in the south island. Much of New Zealand is mountainous and of volcanic origin. The remote Chatham Islands have a distinct legislative status.


Main languages: English, Maori

Main religions: Christianity (various)

According to the 2001 Census, the main minority groups include Maori 526,281 (14.7%) and Pacific Islanders 231,801 (6.5%). The majority of the New Zealand population is of European origin. Maori are Polynesians who settled in New Zealand from the eleventh century. Since the early 1960s there has been migration from the Pacific, especially Polynesia, to New Zealand, and more recently significant migration from Asia. Between 1991 and 2001 the proportion of those identifying as Asian grew from 3 per cent to 6.6 per cent, surpassing the population of Pacific Island descent (6.5%).


New Zealand was not settled until around the eleventh century when there was significant migration from eastern Polynesia. The Maori culture largely developed in isolation from other Polynesian cultures and European influences. By the start of the nineteenth century traders had sought to exploit New Zealand's natural resources and missionaries had begun to evangelize the tangata whenua (the people of the land). There was considerable settlement before New Zealand officially became part of the British Empire in 1840.

The Treaty of Waitangi was signed in February 1840 by the Lieutenant-General-Elect Captain William Hobson and many of the major Maori chiefs; this treaty acknowledged Maori ownership of the land. However, the treaty did not prevent unscrupulous practice by Europeans seeking to obtain more land, and consequent violence. Maori disillusionment and anger at subsequent white responses to the treaty have underlain all, and especially the more recent, attempts to gain greater self-determination and power. The increasing demand of white settlers (Pakeha) for land led to considerable conflict throughout much of the nineteenth century, especially in the North Island. Sporadic contact in the 1840s was followed by the New Zealand wars of the 1860s in the central and west coast areas of the North Island. Disease, violence and displacement greatly reduced the Maori population and by the 1890s their numbers had declined to about 40 per cent of the pre-contact population size.

During the nineteenth century New Zealand developed as a mining and increasingly agricultural economy, in which the sheep industry dominated. Despite the displacement of Maori the white population grew slowly. Maori men were granted the vote in 1867 and in the same year received four special seats in the House of Representatives. The Maori population began to grow again but at a slow rate. Depressions in the 1880s and 1930s slowed economic and population growth. Between 1945 and 1970 the annual rate of population growth increased significantly following a higher birth rate and considerable immigration.

Historically, after the Polynesians, most migration to New Zealand was from the United Kingdom but the sources of migration became more diverse in the years after the Second World War. Immigration reached a peak in the late 1950s, when more than half of all migrants were from the United Kingdom and most others were from northern Europe. From the 1960s onwards other Polynesian migrants became a significant migration stream, especially from the New Zealand territories of Niue, Tokelau and the Cook Islands, and from Samoa and Tonga. In the last two decades there have been significant migration flows from eastern Asia, in some part a response to perceptions of a brain drain from New Zealand to Australia since the two countries formed Closer Economic Relations (CER) and removed immigration restrictions between them.

The most serious health, housing, educational and welfare service problems are associated with non-English-speaking migrants from the Pacific, rather than migrants from Europe or Asia. Indo-Chinese refugee settlers have experienced problems, especially in access to employment; a small number have migrated onwards to Australia.

In 1993 a new nationalist party, New Zealand First, was founded, in part to oppose perceived high levels of migration from Asia. Under its charismatic leader, Winston Peters, a part Maori, it also challenged the Waitangi Tribunal (see below), but its overall electoral success was limited and it lost the Maori parliamentary seats it gained at the first attempt in 1996. The flow of Asian migrants declined somewhat at the start of the twenty-first century with changing immigration criteria, some anti-Asian political rhetoric and some adverse publicity in the People's Republic of China concerning crime rates in New Zealand.


New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy, where there has been limited pressure for a republic. There is a single parliament, which has generally been dominated by two main parties: the Labour Party and the National Party. Because of the proportional representation system there are many minor parties and seven seats are reserved for Maori electors. Four of these are currently held by the Maori Party, which was founded in 2004 in response to the passing of the Foreshore and Seabed Act in November 2004, which effectively extinguished this native title, leading to extensive public protest.

Issues attendant on reconciliation between white settlers and the Maori community are examined by the Waitangi Tribunal, which was created by an Act of the New Zealand Parliament in 1975. The Tribunal allows the retrospective resolution of grievances. Its findings are not legally binding but the recommendations are generally respected by society.

Through the policy of biculturalism, and the practice of the Waitangi Tribunal, New Zealand governments have sought to enable Maori development. Maori tribes (iwi) have developed programmes for local development, but have often lacked the land and capital to implement them; much less attention has been given to the more intractable problems of urban Maori.

Obtaining redress from the government for the wrongful invasion and confiscation of land has been a slow and bitter process. Changing Maori political and cultural strategies have drawn attention away from difficulties experienced by other migrant groups, especially Pacific Islanders. Biculturalism has meant little to other minorities, mainly Asian groups, who have also sometimes been disadvantaged. In 2002 the government officially apologised to the Chinese community for historic grievances, especially the imposition of a poll tax that the first wave of Chinese migrants had endured at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth century. Following reconciliation and consultation processes a NZ$5 million grant was provided for a Chinese Heritage Trust Fund.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

Recent election campaigns have often involved the rights and 'special treatment' of minority groups, and the particular position of Maori continues to be debated in a range of contexts. The cultural renaissance of Maori has received a mixed reception from other New Zealanders, while affirmative action programmes to redress educational and social disadvantage have been more contentious, especially where Maori and Polynesian islander youth are over-represented in crime statistics. The opposition National Party has tended to focus on giving priority to 'mainstream' New Zealanders but who constitutes this group is debatable. The establishment of a Maori Party has given a new focus to Maori issues and ensured that they are frequently debated. Appropriate support services for new migrants have been lacking, and skilled migrants have taken up unskilled positions. Asian and Muslim migrants have experienced some hostility.

The popularity of the racist New Zealand First Party, at its zenith in 1996, appears to have waned (it won 5.72% of support, garnering seven seats in Parliament in the 2005 elections). However, hostility has been reported towards Asian, and particularly Muslim immigrants, with vandalism of mosques in the aftermath of the 7 July 2005 bombings in London. In 2006, there were police calls for Muslim women wearing the burqa to be banned from driving – a move that sparked a public debate on issues of national identity and tolerance.

The New Zealand government sent a clear message on its recognition of the status of Maori and Pacific Islanders by becoming one of only four countries to oppose the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in September 2007. New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark defended the decision, saying the Treaty of Waitangi and common law already protected New Zealand's indigenous peoples' right to lands, territories and resources they have traditionally owned or used. Maori leaders meanwhile claimed they were 'ashamed and outraged' by the decision.

Copyright notice: © Minority Rights Group International. All rights reserved.

Search Refworld