“A fine expression of humanitarianism”: New Zealand’s First Refugees



One morning in November 1944, 775 Polish orphans fleeing the Holocaust arrived in Wellington harbour to spend the rest of their lives in New Zealand. For the rest of the century, similar moments of charity and humanitarianism would be used to justify contentious policy changes. But is this imaging of our past accurate, and is it the best way to implement our current immigration and refugee policies?

1 November 1944

The admission of the 775 Polish children and 82 adults during the final months of World War II kicked off New Zealand’s refugee resettlement regime.[1] We had finally emerged from our colonial British roots to become a fully-fledged humanitarian actor on the global stage. Then-Prime Minister Peter Fraser believed it to be “an act of Christian philanthropy and kindness, in which New Zealanders should be pleased to participate, to welcome these children…”[2] The Consul-General of Poland expressed his recognition when he said: “This latest gesture in providing refuge during these war years for the Polish children will win for ever the love and friendship of all Poles.”[3]

Clearly, our first foray into refugee resettlement was an admirable one – with New Zealand going out of its way to welcome these children who had suffered so much. However, such empathy did not extend to other Europeans also seeking asylum. As early as 1935 we were actively discouraging the arrival of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. During this time refugees were not distinguished from other migrants, and were subject to our restrictive immigration legislation. Section 2(1) of the 1931 Immigration Restriction Amendment Act provided the Governor-General with discretion to prohibit the entry of any persons arriving in the country, depending on any prevailing ‘economic or financial conditions affecting trade and industry’ and factors influencing the ‘public interest’.[4] There was also a prevailing mood within both New Zealand society and the government that Jewish refugees were unsuited for resettlement in the country. The primary consideration for immigration selectors during this time was how successfully Jewish people could be “readily absorbed into the dominion’s population.”[5]

Alongside Jewish Holocaust survivors, New Zealand actively discriminated against Chinese immigrants and asylum seekers throughout the late 19th and early 20th century. The 1881 Chinese Immigrants Act explicitly aimed to limit the number of Chinese people arriving in the country; imposing a limit in proportion of one migrant for every ten tons of the vessel’s weight,[6] as well as a ten-pound poll tax per person.[7] This statute was passed amid fears that Chinese workers, who had originally been drawn to the country to work in the Otago goldfields in the 1860s, would flood the market and undercut the work of local British labourers.[8] This prejudice also extended to government ministers. In 1896 Liberal MP Alexander Hogg decried the Chinese for arriving in New Zealand “like an army of locusts”.[9]

Appropriating the Past

This pattern would continue throughout the 20th century – with certain groups of asylum seekers prevented from entering the country on the basis of cultural and economic considerations. However, there were other moments akin to the arrival of the Polish orphans, where New Zealand went out of its way to resettle the displaced and disadvantaged. For example, we were the first country to accept refugee families with handicapped members in 1959,[10] and one of the few countries to accept applications from refugees suffering from HIV.[11]

What is worthwhile to note, is the way in which this history is appropriated on the political sphere to justify policy decisions. Refugee historian Ann Beaglehole writes that politicians have “consistently relied upon an idealised version” of New Zealand’s humanitarian record in order to establish a narrative that fits their current agenda.[12] In 1956, Prime Minister Sidney Holland invoked the past when agreeing to accept 1000 refugees fleeing the Hungarian uprising, stating that “New Zealand, which has proved so generous in past appeals of this nature, will once again demonstrate to the nations the practical nature of her sympathies in this present European tragedy.”[13] This sentiment was reflected again in 1972, when Prime Minister Keith Holyoake drew upon New Zealand’s “fine record of humanitarian assistance” when accepting 200 Asian refugees from Uganda.[14] Leaning on historical ideas in this way is not necessarily a bad thing, however painting New Zealand’s history with such broad brush strokes fails to acknowledge those moments where we were not so outstandingly humanitarian.

This kind of wilful blindness to our past is not unique to refugee protection. Our history of nation-building has often been subjected to the ‘ideal society myth’. This is what historian James Belich described as the ‘legend’ of New Zealand race relations.[15] This romantic interpretation of the past emphasises the idyllic and progressive relationship between our colonial ancestors and New Zealand’s indigenous Māori population. As late as 1971, pre-eminent New Zealand historian Keith Sinclair was lauding the fact that race relations were better here than in any other former British colony.[16] Historical inaccuracies notwithstanding, this imaging is significant in how it influenced our immigration and refugee policy. If we were so welcoming and accepting of Māori, then surely, we extended the same kindness to those seeking asylum on our shores.

The nature of refugee protection leads to moments in time where decision-makers must act quickly. History is often drawn upon to justify the direction that is taken. When a boat carrying 50 asylum seekers exploded off the coast of Australia on 15 April 2009, parallels were drawn to the Tampa crisis in 2001 which directly informed the response of the Labour Party.[17] In an effort to not appear overly critical of the refugees for daring to attempt asylum – as had been done by the Howard government eight years earlier – Prime Minister Kevin Rudd placed ultimate responsibility on the people smugglers.[18] Not only did this approach shift the blame from the government, but was effective in explaining away the arrival of “boat people” that had been plaguing the Australian border for many years.[19]

Ironically, our past is just as often disregarded as it is overly relied upon to advance a certain narrative. Klaus Neuman and Gwenda Tavan write that the “momentous policy decisions” that shaped New Zealand’s refugee resettlement regime are considered to be detached from the current system, with “policy analogies” between past and present being actively discouraged.[20] As we moved from admitting refugees on a case by case basis depending on church and community sponsorship to a government funded quota system in the space of fifty years, the notion that this progression bears no present relevance is likely short-sighted. In fact, understanding the history of refugee protection can be “an important corrective to the study of present administrative practices”, helping to “trace refugee policy developments” and “understand motives driving policy changes.”[21]


Whether New Zealand has been imagined as a “middle-class paradise” or the “happy colony” far removed from the struggles of class conflict, our perception of our own national identity has been grounded in a sense that we have been an “independent and principled player on the world stage.”[22] This popular way of thinking about our past has significant ramifications when applied to our immigration and refugee policies. Clearly, politicians and governments heavily rely on a certain image of New Zealand’s past when confronted with difficult policy decisions that they have to justify. Unlike historians however, who study the past in order to understand it better, often decision-makers rely on a memorial relationship that actively excludes aspects of our past that don’t serve their narrative.

What is the main takeaway from this? It would be wrong to suggest that New Zealand’s history of refugee protection has been entirely racist and discriminatory. In many ways we have led the world in refugee resettlement ever since we decided to take in 775 Polish orphans in 1944. However, this is not the whole story. To forget the times when we were not so humanitarian would be to distort aspects of our past in order to represent a heroic and benevolent narrative that doesn’t exist. The way in which New Zealand’s decision-makers appropriate this fiction to justify contentious policy changes is something which should be carefully scrutinized in the future.

Image source: Polish refugee children arriving in New Zealand on board the ship General Randall. Ref: 1/2-003634-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23166346

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[1] Anton Binzegger, New Zealand’s Policy on Refugees (New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, Wellington, 1980) at 14.

[2] At 15.

[3] [3] Krstyna Skwarko The Invited: The Story of 733 Polish Children Who Grew Up in New Zealand (Millwood Press, Wellington, 1974).

[4] Immigration Restriction Amendment Act 1931, s 2(1).

[5] Ann Beaglehole Refuge New Zealand: a nation’s response to refugees and asylum seekers (Otago University Press, Dunedin, 2013) at 32.

[6] Chinese Immigrants Act 1881, s 3.

[7] Section 5.

[8] David Pearson A Dream Deferred: The Origins of Ethnic Conflict in New Zealand (Allen & Unwin, Wellington, 1990) at 76-77.

[9] [9] Brian Moloughney and John Stenhouse “‘Drug-besotten, sin-begotten fiends of filth’: New Zealanders and the Oriental Other” (1999) 33 New Zealand Journal of History 43 at 48.

[10] Ann Beaglehole, above n 5, at 105-106.

[11] Ann Beaglehole “Looking back and glancing sideways: refugee policy and multicultural nation-building in New Zealand” in Klaus Neumann and Gwenda Tavan (eds) Does History Matter? Making and debating citizenship, immigration and refugee policy in Australia and New Zealand (ANU Press, Canberra, 2009) at 107.

[12] At 105.

[13] Department of Labour Refugee Women: The New Zealand refugee quota programme (New Zealand Immigration Service, Wellington, 1994) at 17.

[14] Ann Beaglehole, above n 11, at 106.

[15] Brian Moloughney and John Stenhouse “‘Drug-besotten, sin-begotten fiends of filth’: New Zealanders and the Oriental Other” (1999) 33 New Zealand Journal of History 43 at 44.

[16] Keith Sinclair “Why are Race Relations in New Zealand Better Than in South Africa, South Australia or South Dakota” (1971) 5 New Zealand Journal of History 121 at 121.

[17] Klaus Neumann and Gwenda Tavan (eds) Does History Matter? Making and debating citizenship, immigration and refugee policy in Australia and New Zealand (ANU Press, Canberra, 2009) at 1.

[18] At 1.

[19] At 1-2.

[20] Klaus Neumann and Gwenda Tavan (eds) Does History Matter? Making and debating citizenship, immigration and refugee policy in Australia and New Zealand (ANU Press, Canberra, 2009) at 4-5.

[21] J. Olaf Kleist “The History of Refugee Protection: Conceptual and Methodological Challenges” (2017) 30 J. Refugee Stud. 161 at 166.

[22] Ann Beaglehole, above n 11, at 106.