COVID-19 has had dreadful effects on many aspects of New Zealand life, including on businesses and the wider economy. But the latest data on international migration, from Statistics New Zealand, have at least one positive feature: Kiwis are coming home in considerable numbers.

The encouraging point about this is that many of the returning Kiwi migrants will be bringing with them valuable skills and experience, which will be important in rebuilding the economy.

This dramatic turn of events has been the result of a large fall in the numbers of New Zealand citizens departing, and an even larger rise in the numbers arriving.

The graph below shows that, during 2019, net migration of New Zealand citizens was trending slowly upwards into positive territory. However, in February of this year net migration of New Zealand citizens increased sharply. And it increased even more in March – the latest month for which data is available. This dramatic turn of events has been the result of a large fall in the numbers of New Zealand citizens departing, and an even larger rise in the numbers arriving.

In January of this year, net migration of New Zealand citizens was 530. In February, the number was 1,770. And in March, the number was 5,190.

Source: Statistics New Zealand

At the same time, net migration of non-New Zealand citizens was 4,770 in March. This was down from 6,510 in February and 6,480 in January, but the numbers imply that New Zealand is still seen as a good place to be.

It will be tragic if this causes the returning migrants to leave again, once travel restrictions ease and overseas economic conditions start to improve.

Getting back to the New Zealanders coming home, many of them will face challenges finding employment in very difficult labour market conditions. Unemployment will undoubtedly rise in the coming months, and it will be tragic if this causes the returning migrants to leave again, once travel restrictions ease and overseas economic conditions start to improve. 

It would be difficult for the government to target support on New Zealanders returning from overseas. But, given that many of them will have valuable skills, experience and capital, it would be enormously beneficial if they could stay home to build new businesses or take up vacancies that have traditionally been hard to fill.