Strangers in a strange land: Immigrant and refugee education in New Zealand

Net migration is fueling a population boom in New Zealand, with 97,300 new arrivals in the first six months of 2016 alone (Rutherford, 2016). The resulting influx of immigrants requires a fundamental rethink of how we approach education in this country, especially in the larger cities. As we do this, we need to be aware that the reasons for people arriving in New Zealand can be very different. There are distinct differences between the experiences of immigrants and refugees. And while they face some of the same hurdles, there are also so fundamental differences that need to be addressed to ensure successful integration of both groups. Most immigrants are drawn to New Zealand by a choice of lifestyle or economic factors. While a smaller percentage of those coming are refugees, people left with little choice but to flee the strife and war in their homelands.

Being exposed to long-term stress and trauma can have a detrimental effect on student success long after the immediate danger has subsided. There can be long lasting impacts to social and psychological well-being. This is not to say that the path to success for economic migrants are easy, but rather that symptoms of the refugee experience can be more acute. Despite the best efforts of organizations like the United Nations Refugee Agency, access to what equates to a “normal” schooling environment is virtually non-existent in some countries. The security situation in camps in Darfur, Syria, etc. is constantly changing and that can lead to a pervasive sense of insecurity. I have worked with teachers from the NGO Right to Play, who have rehabilitated child soldiers in Africa. One of the stories that highlighted the effect of a constant security concerns was: when students played football at lunch, they would line up their bags on the side of the pitch with all their belongings in them. This was just in case they had to grab them and flee. A survival mindset that pervaded even though they were in a secure guarded compound.

In order to alleviate some of the more acute symptoms of refugee anxiety, we, as teachers, have several methods to help ease the transition. It is important to emphasize a safe, stable, caring environment. Make sure that students know that they can come to you for extra help or even just to talk when they feel ready. Give them specific times when then know that you are available and make sure that behavioral norms are understood for your classroom. Not everyone comes from the same teaching environment. Lastly, we must emphasize the positive aspects of home cultures and integrate them into the wider classroom.

Integrating economic and social immigrants is no less important, and while the impacts of the refugee’s experiences are intense, those affecting other immigrants can also have long-lasting effects. In particular, the feeling of cultural isolation, language barriers, and an alien classroom culture can all affect student learning. In my own experiences, teaching in China, the student-teacher dynamic is very different. When I came to New Zealand, there was a more free-flowing exchange between students and teachers. However, the Chinese students remained reserved in their interaction as this was the traditional custom. Confidence in language proficiency can also affect student participation. As teachers, it is important to encourage second language speakers to engage in English as reticence is often related to confidence rather than understanding.

Making students feel that their culture and contribution to New Zeeland is valued, is essential to the integration of new migrants. It is a great opportunity to broaden the New Zealand perspective and show that we are a modern inclusive society.


“Supporting Refugee Children & Youth: Tips for Educators”. (n.d.). Retrieved June 9, 2017, from

Rutherford, H. (2016, August 12). “Record migration sees New Zealand population record largest ever increase”. Retrieved June 9, 2017, from


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