For almost half a century there has been significant migration from the Pacific islands, but primarily from Polynesia, to New Zealand. The largest urban concentration of Pacific Islanders living outside their own countries is in Auckland, sometimes referred to as the ‘Polynesian capital of the world’. By 1991 there were 167,000 Pacific Islanders – those specifying an island ethnic identity – in New Zealand, of whom half were born there.

According to the 2013 census, Pacific Islanders at 295,941 (7.4 per cent). Samoans are the largest Pacific group, making up 48.7 per cent of all Pacific New Zealanders, followed by Cook Islands Māori (20.9 per cent), Tongans (20.4 per cent) and Niueans (8.1 per cent).


Historical context

Since the early 1960s Polynesian migrants have come to New Zealand, mainly in search of superior employment and income-generating opportunities. The stagnation of the New Zealand economy and economic restructuring in the 1980s tended to disadvantage Pacific Islanders, some of whom migrated onwards to Australia and the USA, but migration continued, especially from states with past or present political ties to New Zealand, notably Samoa, the Cook Islands, Tokelau and Niue. Formal recognition of the political significance of Pacific Islanders came in 1985 when the Labour government formed a Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs, which has an advisory council consisting of members of the six main island groups.


Current issues

Pacific Islanders experience high rates of unemployment and are mainly employed in manufacturing industries, but Islanders born in New Zealand are more likely to be employed and work in professional, managerial and technical jobs. However, these trends are common to all New Zealanders hence there remain disparities between Pacific Islanders and others. Pacific Islander households tend to be larger and to have lower incomes than others. There are significant concentrations of Pacific Islanders in overcrowded, impoverished inner city areas, especially in south Auckland, where their residential distribution is similar to that of Māori. Whereas affirmative action programmes have been developed these have tended to favour Māori, and Pacific Islanders have not made comparable recent gains.


Updated January 2018.

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