Global Policy Forum

Island Populations Thinning Out From Migration


By Shailendra Singh

Inter Press Service
January 2, 2007

''Hi all; just to let you know that I will be leaving end of this week and migrating to Australia in early February. This is just a small farewell note to you all.''

So said an email posted to friends and colleagues by Prem Krishna, 40, an accountant at the University of the South Pacific (USP) in the capital, late December. Like Krishna some 500 skilled and qualified people leave Fiji every month in search of greener pastures overseas.

According to a United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA) report released in December, Fiji is not the only country in the region losing qualified, able-bodied young people due to migration. The report says that an increasing number of Pacific Islanders are leaving their homes to live, work or study abroad, with potentially long-term, negative implications for their home countries.

Speaking to IPS news in Suva, Fiji, Najib Assifi, the UNFPA Representative and director of the Country Services Technical Team, said that moribund economies, a dearth of opportunities, unemployment, low earnings from paid jobs, natural disasters and calamities and internal instability were the push factors making migration an attractive option for many Pacific Islanders to developed Pacific rim countries such as Australia and New Zealand.

Following a devastating cyclone on the Cook Islands some years ago, a large number of people left for New Zealand, where they have free entry by virtue of their political arrangement of internal self-government in free association with New Zealand. In Fiji, three coups since 1987 had seen around 120,000 Indian migrate from the country. The fourth military coup staged this month is expected to exacerbate the situation.

Krishna, who leaves the country with his wife in February, had intended to continue working in Fiji while holding Australian permanent residency. But the coup on Dec. 5 forced him into making an early departure. "My wife is putting pressure on me," he said.

According to the UNFPA report, which is released annually to mark International Migrants' Day on 18th December, some 70,000 Fiji-born people now live outside Fiji -- of this about 44,000 live in Australia while 25,500 live in New Zealand. The situation in the region is equally worrying with more than half of the population of Samoa (local pop. 180,000) and Tonga (local pop. 120,000) living overseas, as well as three out of four Cook Islanders (local pop. 19,000), Tokelauans (local pop. 1,500) and Niueans (local pop. 2000) making their homes in another country.

The exodus includes nurses, doctors, engineers, teachers and professionals in both public and private sectors. This has impacted negatively on basic services, including health care and public utilities such as water supply and education, putting them in danger of collapse in some countries. Assifi said that while the migrants send millions of dollars in remittances back home and help prop up their countries' economies, the long-term effect of the skills loss is cause for concern.

Studies conducted at the USP show that since the May 2000 coup by failed businessman George Speight, Fiji may have lost more than 35,000 teachers, professionals and other qualified workers, and that the ‘brain drain' may be worth 25 million US dollars or more a year.

According to the Suva-based Pacific Forum Island Secretariat, the administrative arm of the 16-member Pacific Islands Forum, the size of remittance flows to the Pacific vary widely. Some papers by the secretariat put the figure as high as 100 million dollars (net) to the Pacific as a whole.

Remittances to Fiji totaled 186 million dollars in 2005 and are now the second largest foreign exchange earner. In Tonga, private receipts through remittances are estimated to have reached close to 200 million dollars, which is around 31 per cent of GDP. Remittances from Samoans living in New Zealand, Australia and the U.S. in 2005 totaled 116 million dollars, accounting for 29.7 percent of Samoa's GDP, according to the Samoan Ministry of Finance.

The high level of reliance on remittances is worrying, says Assifi. "When remittances become the major source of income, the recipients become too dependant on it and this affects entrepreneurship and business development; whereas if the manpower remains, is helps in the long-term development of these countries. It is better than receiving direct cash."

He notes that only the first generation migrants with stronger ties to the home country are generous in terms of sending money home. The level of remittances decreases among subsequent generations. "Young people starting a new life don't have enough cash to send back home, leading to reduced level of remittances. Governments react by actually encouraging new migrants to go outside -- but the way to fix the situation is by job creation at home, opening up investment opportunities and encouraging small businesses."

In a paper on ‘Pacific Islands migration and loss of traditional knowledge', Cook Islands environmentalist Imogen Ingram further highlights the social and cultural effects of immigration such as the loss of agricultural skills, cultivated land, traditional maritime skills, native languages and changes in traditional diet. "Only a few (Cook Islanders) still know which trees are the best for building the voyaging canoes, and how to construct the canoe hulls," she says. " Knowledge about how to navigate using the stars has also been lost."

Ingram adds that once families have migrated to their adopted country, their mother tongue is no longer the first language. A shortage of working-age people, she says, means a lack of people willing to undertake the hard work of growing traditional crops such as taro, with taro gardens cultivated for centuries now lying fallow.

''Because it is less effort to buy imported foods, the national diet has changed. This, coupled with a less active lifestyle, has led to increased incidence of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease,'' Ingram said.

Senior lecturer at the USP's population studies programme Dr Kesaia Seniloli says that ‘temporary migration' whereby people going abroad to work as care givers or domestic help leave behind children, a spouse or elderly dependants also has negative social effects. "The family unit is uprooted and this causes a lot of social problems, such as kids growing up without a parent," said Seniloli.

A number of Fiji citizens and those of other countries in the region are working in the U.S. as caregivers or domestics helpers while around 1,000 ex-Fijian soldiers, attracted by salaries as high as five-times what they are paid at home, are working in war-torn Iraq -- where around 13 have died.

Krishna, the USP accountant, will leave behind elderly parents and a sister when he packs his bags for Australia. "This is my biggest concern," he says. But the pull from friends and family who are already in Australia is strong. He hopes that his mother and sister will eventually join him.

Meanwhile, structural engineer Sandeep Sharma has filed his papers to emigrate to Australia and is keeping his fingers crossed. Unlike Krishna, his parents and two sisters are already overseas. Sharma holds down a good job in Suva and likes the lifestyle. But the 28-year-old is prepared to sacrifice all this to escape the crime and political instability bedeviling Fiji, he says.

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