Anti-Muslim immigration sentiment is less prevalent in New Zealand than in Europe

While immigration has certainly a been an issue in New Zealand, attitudes against Muslim migrants haven't been as prevalent.

Bias is 'so relatively minor that it has flown under the radar,' says religion professor

More than 100 people attend an interfaith prayer service at the Muslim Educational Trust in Tigard, Ore., on Friday. The service offered condolences to the Muslims worldwide and the citizens of New Zealand after terrorist attacks on two mosques in Christchurch killed at least 49 people. (Associated Press)

Anti-immigration ideals makes up a significant part of the 74-page manifesto linked to the man charged in the deadly mass shooting attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

It declares that one of the goals of the shooting that killed 49 people is to "directly reduce immigration rates to European lands by intimidating and physically removing the invaders themselves."

The term "invaders" is peppered throughout the document, a reference to the Muslim population, who, according to the manifesto, "seek to occupy my peoples lands and ethnically replace my own people." German Chancellor Angela Merkel is also put on a hit list, targeted because "few have done more to damage and racially cleanse Europe of its people."

Brenton Tarrant, a 28-year-old man from Australia, has been charged with murder in the shootings. But while immigration has certainly been an issue in New Zealand, bias against Muslim immigration hasn't been as vocal as in Europe.

"We are so far away from the Muslim world that then it's very rare that people express in any formal sense that we're taking too many Muslim people," said Murdoch Stephens, a researcher who spearheaded a campaign to double the refugee quota in New Zealand. 

Not the hot-button issue

It has not been the hot-button issue that it has in parts of Europe, which took in more than a million refugees during the 2015 migrant crisis, a move that sparked a lot of anti-immigrant attitudes.

The Muslim population in New Zealand is small but growing. According to the 2013 census, which has the most recent figures, the number of people affiliating with the Muslim religion increased 27.9 per cent from 2006, from 36,072 people to 46,149. New Zealand  has a population of over four million, meaning Muslims make up little over one per cent of the population.

In this image made from video, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gives a press conference from Wellington, after the shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, March 15, 2019. Ardern said the values of her country would not be "shaken" by the deadly attacks that left dozens dead. (TVNZ via AP) (The Associated Press)

Christchurch has attracted right-wing extremism and there have been instances of low-level white wing extremism for quite a while, said Douglas Pratt a professor of religious studies at The University of Auckland.

"The white supremacy movement that the [suspect allegedly] represents has been active in New Zealand but it's been treated as an odd aberration that nobody takes too seriously because of the old dominant tradition of widespread tolerance," said Pratt, author of the book Religion and Extremism: Rejecting Diversity

"Certainly you can find expressions of antipathy towards Muslims in particular and sometimes immigrants," he said. "There is some residual racism of one kind or another in recent years that's been so relatively minor that it has flown under the radar."

Still, the issue of Muslim immigration has flared up. In 2005 the former New Zealand prime minister Bill English, then an MP for the National Party, described Middle Eastern asylum seekers as "leftovers" who should be blocked from entering the country.

"We need migrants, but we don't need leftovers from Middle East terrorist regimes," he said in a newsletter.

In 2013, Richard Prosser,  an MP of New Zealand First, a nationalist anti-immigration party, made headlines when he said young Muslim men should be banned from air travel.

Meanwhile, in the 2017 election, immigration in general was a big issue, said Stephens. Under the National government, immigration had climbed up to record levels of more than 70,000 a year.

But opposition to immigration was largely focused on Chinese and Indian immigrants buying property as New Zealand suffered through a housing crisis, Stephens said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had run on a policy of reducing immigration. She had pledged to cut annual immigration by up to 30,000 during her three-year term, in part to ease the housing crisis. 

But she rejected comparisons to U.S. President Donald Trump and his immigration policies, and pledged to raise the refugee quota from 1,000 to 1,500 by 2020.

Crackdown on immigration

Some have suggested, however, her crackdown on immigration may be due to having to enter into a coalition with  New Zealand First, which received about seven per cent of the vote in the 2017 election and held the balance of power.

The party is led by Winston Peters, who has appeared to moderate his views, at least in practical terms. Indeed he angered many supporters when he supported the United Nations pact on migration, a non-binding global pact to better handle migrant flows.

It was this pact that the suspect is alleged to have made reference to, writing "Here's your migration compact" on one of his ammunition clips. 

Winston Peters, leader of the New Zealand First nationalist party, has appeared to moderate his views, at least in practical terms. (Nick Perry/Associated Press)

Peters criticized the National Party and its leader for not supporting the pact. National Leader Simon Bridges had suggested the pact was an intrusion into a country's sovereignty and could affect its ability to set its own migration policies.

In an interview with New Zealand's News Hub in 2018, National Party MP Gerry Brownlee said the UN migration pact will result "pretty much in open borders."

Stephens suggested those kinds of comments, while factually incorrect, are also the subtle ways in which politicians may take aim at certain migrants.

"They're not explicitly saying that it's open borders to Muslim immigration," said Stephens. "But this is the kind of dog whistle to people like [the suspect]."



Mark Gollom


Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Associated Press, Reuters