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Statistics New Zealand (SNZ) data released yesterday said the net gain of 3500 people - more arrivals than departures - was the highest annual net gain of migrants in more than 10 years. Net migration had been positive and mostly increasing since September 2012. China provided the largest group during the past year.
''The increase was mainly due to fewer New Zealand citizens leaving for Australia, as well as more non-New Zealand citizens arriving,'' SNZ said yesterday.
In the year to February, migrant arrivals numbered 96,900, and migrant departures numbered 67,800 - a net gain of 29,000 migrants.
ASB economist Daniel Smith said the February inflow was about 11% larger than the previous month, due to both higher numbers of arrivals, up 3% month-on-month, and fewer departures, down 1.8% month-on-month.
''The number of migrants arriving in New Zealand has lifted strongly since around mid-2013. That has been driven by New Zealanders returning from Australia and higher migrant numbers from Asia and Europe,'' Mr Smith said.
''Strong inwards migration will continue to add to domestic demand and housing market pressures, and is one of the reasons why interest rates will rise over the next couple of years,'' Mr Smith said.
The strong inwards migration was seemingly one of the reasons for the Reserve Bank adopting an ''increasingly hawkish stance'' over the past year.
Westpac senior economist Felix Delbruck said the Reserve Bank was forecasting net immigration this year to hit about 35,000.
''The Reserve Bank is currently putting a lot of store in net migration supporting the housing market through this year, so it will have taken note.''
With mortgage rates now rising, Mr Delbruck said he was less optimistic than the Reserve Bank that the housing market would have a second wind later this year, though stronger population growth would provide support to the market.
February's acceleration in net migration was driven by a further decline in net departures of New Zealanders to Australia, now running at 600, compared with an average during the past six months of 1000, and well down from more than 3500 seen in late 2011, Mr Delbruck said.
Mr Smith said the regional breakdown of migration continued to show large net inflows to the Auckland and Canterbury regions in particular.
''That will provide much-needed workers, especially in Canterbury, which will reduce labour market pressures,'' he said in a statement.
SNZ said in the latest year, New Zealand had a net loss of 15,000 migrants to Australia, well down from 36,700 a year earlier. Net gains were recorded from most other countries, led by China, 6100, and 5800 each from India and the United Kingdom.