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Research asks how migrants feel welcomed in NZ 


Cultural festivals are a feature of Palmerston North's multi-ethnic communities (photo/Palmerston North City Council)


Feeling safe, having a job, a home and access to gardens and nature – new migrants and refugees say these are vital to settling successfully and feeling a sense of belonging. 

Volunteering, voting and doing jury service also enable people to feel at home in their adopted country, according to new research from Massey University.

The findings are outlined in a preliminary report on the impact of the Welcoming Communities programme being piloted by Palmerston North City Council and in five regions around New Zealand.

Report author Professor Cynthia White, Pro Vice-Chancellor for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, says settling in a new country is “an invisible process” that occurs beyond the awareness or understanding of many citizens. A sense of belonging was defined both by the ‘roots’ people put down here, and by the ‘routes’ they take to come here and their trajectory in finding their place in a new country, she says. 

Access to English language learning and being able to maintain one’s own language was a key factor of successful settlement. Having family was crucial too. Those with children born here felt a special belonging, while those separated from extended family in their homeland often felt less connected. 

Participants in the 2018 interviews and surveys expressed a high level of belonging across a range of indicators. This was not diminished following the March 15 Christchurch mosque shootings last year when a second survey was done. Most participants reported they felt reassured by the overwhelming support of Kiwis, as well as the government’s move to outlaw assault weapons.

Professor White, an expert in language learning and linguistics based in the School of Humanities at the University’s Manawatū campus, surveyed and interviewed new migrants, refugees and former international students at English Teaching College (ETC) in Palmerston North. Her research is in partnership with Palmerston North City Council and she plans to share her findings with civic leaders in the other four regions where it is being piloted – Whanganui, Tauranga, Ashburton and Southland.

“Welcoming Communities is an initiative of Immigration New Zealand, developed in recognition that welcoming activities which engage both newcomers and existing residents, enhance understanding and appreciation of each other, leading to stronger and more resilient communities,” she says in the report co-authored with Massey’s Distingiushed Professor Paul Spoonley and Hanna Brookie, PhD candidate at Massey and Director of Studies at English Teaching College in Palmerston North. 

The Welcoming Communities Standards sets out key areas under which local bodies aim to build connections between newcomers and locals, including through inclusive leadership, welcoming communications, economic development, business and employment, civic engagement and participation, welcoming public spaces, and culture and identity.

Professor Cynthia White's research explores the settlement experiences of migrants and refugees in Palmerston North


Safe neighbourhoods a plus

Aspects of life many locals might take for granted – such as a relatively clean, green environment, and a sense of safety through supportive neighbourhoods, a trust in police and law enforcement, low crime rates as well as safety from war, terrorism, political violence and persecution – all contributed to newcomers feeling welcome, she says. 

One participant from Britain told researchers, “[Back home] alert levels are always high. Your eyes are always trained to spot an unattended bag, or every time you get on an underground or a bus you kind of think… well you know… so that’s the big joy here that everything’s a lot easier.”

A former refugee from Asia said; “[New Zealand is] very safe… In my country… if we’re sleeping [they] come in the door… and put [us] inside jail… if we die or not it doesn’t matter.”

The research project started in 2012 with a survey of 72 immigrants and former refugees living in Palmerston North about their settlement experiences. A follow-up survey and in-depth interviews were undertaken in 2018 and 2019. “One practical outcome is that at English Teaching College participants’ stories are displayed representing the diverse routes they have taken to education, employment and settlement,” Professor White says.

For some, however, the moment of belonging has not come. “They feel tolerated, but not accepted, and struggle with subtle racism,” she says. New Zealanders could do more to welcome newcomers simply by reaching out with respect and interest. Sharing your own story of how you came to live in particular street or city is a good precursor to asking a new migrant about their journey to get here and about their home country, she says.

Read more about Welcoming Communities here.

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