This article was written as an editorial for Stuff newspapers.
OPINION: As borders open, young Kiwis living like caged birds for the past two years are spreading their wings. But if we want them to come back home, there’s a lot to be learnt from the mistakes of the past couple of years.
One travel executive says they are already seeing the results of pent-up demand, as people pursue their “almost god-given right” to the Big OE.
Living costs are skyrocketing, wages are not keeping pace, and the promise of adventure in a reopening world beckons.
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This is nothing new for New Zealand. Pre-pandemic, about 50,000 Kiwis flew the nest each year. But many of them returned after a couple of years in working holiday hotspots like the UK or Canada. Expat organisation Kea says during the past 21 years, their people have watched Kiwis “boomerang”.
And indeed, a record number of Kiwis returned home at the beginning of the pandemic, seeking safe refuge, as they’ve done during other times of uncertainty, or following terror attacks.
But the decision to come home is not a given, and souring sentiment among the expat community has the potential to drive a brain drain at a time when the country is being hit with a skills shortage.
An estimated 1 million New Zealanders are spread across the world, from Australia and Africa, to the United States and the United Kingdom.
Historically, overseas New Zealanders have been fierce cheerleaders for their home nation. But during the past couple of years, a large swathe of Kiwi expats have felt scapegoated, leaving them alienated.
They are looking forward to visiting their families after years locked out of their own country, but for many, near-term plans to move home have been taken off the table.
When the prime minister failed to acknowledge this group in naming her Team of 5 Million, the first blow was dealt. This was compounded by rising anti-expat sentiment and a difficult-to-navigate MIQ system that delivered heartbreak after heartbreak. All this was endured while their local health systems buckled, Covid-19 cases skyrocketed, and people died around them.
A glance at the Grounded Kiwis Facebook page shows the hurt runs deep. But that doesn’t mean the relationship is beyond repair.
Some have already moved on from the struggles of being stranded overseas, others will take a little while – waiting for milestones, like buying a house or welcoming a child, to nudge them home. Then there are those who’ve transitioned from expat to export, after feeling abandoned by their government and fellow Kiwis when they desperately needed support.
If New Zealand hopes to lure back overseas Kiwis – including the latest cohort of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed adventure-seekers – there are a few tangible things the Government should be reflecting on.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announces that the border will fully reopen for Australian tourists in April, and then visa-waiver countries a month later.
The pandemic has highlighted issues with access to welfare support for overseas New Zealanders; mounting student debt due to overseas interest fees; access to superannuation schemes; and expats’ rights to vote.
The private sector also has the ability to maintain connections by enabling Kiwis to work remotely from other countries, or by offering them jobs in local markets.
But it’s also about maintaining cultural and emotional ties, and acknowledging the contribution of those 1 million Kiwis – whether they come home or not.
Those who come back bring valuable work and life experience; those who stay scattered across the globe act as proud ambassadors. And for a country that trades off its international reputation, the effects of this advocacy cannot be overstated, and shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Editorials are unbylined opinion articles, written for our newspapers by a roster of senior journalists, in consultation with editors.
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