COVID-19 travel and border restrictions have reduced migrant arrivals and departures to low levels in recent months, according to Stats NZ.

April to July 2020 were months under full border restrictions imposed by the New Zealand government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

New Zealand citizens dominated migrant arrivals during this period, making up a provisionally estimated 4,000 migrant arrivals. For migrant departures of New Zealand citizens, the number was provisionally estimated at 800.

“Monthly migrant flows of New Zealand citizens are well below levels in previous years,” population indicators manager Tehseen Islam said.

“Border and travel restrictions, along with capacity constraints in managed isolation and quarantine facilities, have limited people’s ability to travel.”

“The current net gain of New Zealand citizens is a combination of people choosing to return from overseas, and New Zealand citizens who may have been unable or reluctant to head offshore due to international travel restrictions and the evolving global pandemic,” Mr Islam said.

July 2020 is the 12th consecutive monthly net gain of New Zealand citizens. This reverses the typical historical pattern where more New Zealand citizens depart than arrive.

In contrast, there was a net loss of non-New Zealand citizen migrants each month from April to July 2020. This is the first period of net losses of non-New Zealand citizens in the outcomes-based migration estimates, available from 2001 onwards.

From April to July 2020, overall net migration was provisionally estimated at 800, made up of a net gain of 3,300 New Zealand citizens, and a net loss of 2,500 non-New Zealand citizens. Across the same four months in 2019, there was a provisionally estimated net gain of 14,200 migrants.

Pre-lockdown arrivals lift annual migration

Despite low migration in recent months, provisional estimates for the year ended July 2020 show annual net migration at 76,200. This consisted of 56,700 non-New Zealand citizens and 19,500 New Zealand citizens.

“Ninety-nine percent of the overall net migration gain in the year ended July 2020 occurred in the eight months leading up to travel and border restrictions,” Mr Islam said.

“In the last four months the net migration gain was only 800.”

“Many people who arrived in New Zealand in late-2019 and early-2020 have not yet returned overseas, and are staying longer than usual.”

As people stay longer, they are more likely to be counted as a migrant arrival. The ongoing stay of people who arrived before border and travel restrictions, is keeping annual net migration estimates at high levels.

Net migration estimates could be revised up or down depending on whether these people stay in New Zealand or head back overseas.

Low travel in recent months

On average, there were 7,600 arrivals and 19,000 departures in each month from April to July 2020. These are well below averages for the same period in 2019, when there were 526,000 arrivals and 555,500 departures each month.

From April to July 2020, 2 in every 3 arrivals was by a New Zealand citizen, and 6 in every 7 departures was by a non-New Zealand citizen.

Almost all border crossings are by short-term travellers. From April to July 2019, about 1 in 60 people who crossed the border was provisionally a migrant, compared with 1 in 10 in the same period in 2020. This change is mostly due to the large decrease in short-term travel volumes.

Who is a migrant?

‘Migrant arrivals’ are overseas residents, including New Zealand citizens living overseas, who cumulatively spend 12 of the next 16 months in New Zealand after arriving.

‘Migrant departures’ are New Zealand residents, including non-New Zealand citizens living in New Zealand, who cumulatively spend 12 of the next 16 months out of New Zealand after departing.

Migrant arrivals and departures include the flows of New Zealand citizens as well as the flows of non-New Zealand citizens as both affect the population living in New Zealand.

The classification of travellers as migrants is based on their time spent in and out of New Zealand, not what visa type or passport they cross the border on, and not on their responses on arrival cards. Given this, we need to observe up to 16 months of travel history, using the 12/16-month rule, to definitively classify a border crossing as a migrant movement. Border crossing data after June 2020 therefore informs the latest migration estimates.