November 04, 2021

Lack of international migration brings NZ population growth to a crawl

Internal migration a big factor in subnational population change

Population change is a product of natural increases and international migration. At a local level, internal migration is also important.

New Zealand’s total population increased by 32,400 in the year ended June 2021. As the graph below shows, this was a significant drop in comparison to the years previous, with 2019 totalling 78,600 and 2020 totalling 111,000.

Population change data is to the end of June.

New Zealand has historically relied on international migration for the majority of the nation’s population growth. But, in 2021, only 14 percent of the growth came from international migration, whereas in 2020, 76 percent of the increase came from this source.

However, this decrease is not surprising. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and borders remain largely closed, there is very little international migration into New Zealand and thus, very little population change.

The components of subnational population change.

Below national level, population change consists of three components, with the first being natural increases, which is the excess of births over deaths. The last two components are internal migration and international migration, which combine to make net migration. Internal migration measures internal migrants (people who live in New Zealand) arriving in one area in the nation and internal migrants departing from an area. International migration is the difference between international arrivals into New Zealand and international departures from New Zealand.

Natural increases to the population in New Zealand remains steady.

In 2021, New Zealand’s total natural increase in the population was 27,700, which is a slight increase from 26,500 in 2019. The large majority of territorial authorities in New Zealand saw natural increases to their local population, with the exception of the following five districts:

  • Kapiti Coast district, with a decrease of 170 people
  • Thames-Coromandel district, with a decrease of 110 people
  • Waitaki district, with a decrease of 30 people
  • Chatham Islands territory, with a decrease of 10 people
  • Gore district, with a decrease of 10 people.

Auckland accounted for 47 percent of New Zealand’s total natural increase to the population with a natural increase of 12,900 in 2021.

Large amounts of internal migration away from big cities.

Internal migration can occur for a variety of reasons, with some of the main reasons being: family, work, or education related. It is often thought that main/major urban districts are responsible for attracting large numbers of New Zealanders from elsewhere. However, the following districts are very urban and major districts, which all suffered decreases in net internal migration in 2021:

  • Auckland, with a net internal migration decrease of 13,500 people
  • Christchurch city, with a net internal migration decrease of 1,600 people
  • Wellington city, with a net internal migration decrease of 1,200 people.

These cities were three of the top four cities in terms of natural increases in their respective populations in 2021. However, as illustrated above, experienced significant amounts of negative internal migration. This was not a one-off in 2021, with negative net internal migration coming close to outweighing the natural increase of the cities in 2019 and 2020.

Net international migration in New Zealand decreased by 94 percent between 2020 and 2021.

As a nation that depends largely on international migration as a means of population growth, the inability for any international migration as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, has dramatically reduced population growth around most of New Zealand.

In 2020, Auckland’s net international migration totalled 33,800, but in 2021, this totalled negative 670. This reflects a significant reduction in the number of arriving international migrants, while a significant number of international migrants departed the city. Auckland lost the most international migrants out of the six total areas which suffered losses in international migration.

This was the main driver in Auckland experiencing a decrease in population change of 1,300 in 2021, compared to an increase in their total population change in 2020 of 35,600.

Net migration likely to remain constrained.

For many years, New Zealand’s population growth has been supported by large amounts of international migration into the country. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the ability for much international migration has been limited, and now population growth has been reliant on natural increases.

As natural increases to the population only increases slowly and steadily, it is unlikely New Zealand will see significant population growth until COVID-19 is under control here and border closures can be lifted.