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Tonga: Migration and the Homeland

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Tonga: Migration and the Homeland

The Kingdom of Tonga, an archipelago of islands in the South Pacific, is the last surviving Polynesian kingdom. Although a British protectorate for 70 years, Tonga managed to survive the ravages of the colonial world with much of its heritage and authority intact, including indigenous chiefly leadership, Tongan-only land ownership, and a robust subsistence farming and fishing economic sector. An independent nation and member of the British Commonwealth since 1970, Tonga is a constitutional monarchy under the leadership of King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, the fourth modern monarch in a hereditary chiefly line.

Throughout the last half of the 20th century, internal and overseas migration have been part of a steady transformation of the kingdom—one that has redefined its economy and is now challenging its polity. Today, many of the most profound changes in the kingdom, as well as the most salient issues of the day, are intimately tied to migration.

A Brief Migration History

In the 1930s, the Tongan population of about 32,000 was distributed across three island groups on 36 habitable islands; not quite half of the population resided on the main island of Tongatapu in 60 different villages. The capital city of Nuku'alofa was home to only about one in 10 Tongans. After World War II, this distribution began to shift. With an increasing pull of education and work opportunities on the main island, and a mushrooming population facing a shortage of agricultural land, young Tongans began to move.

The first moves were internal, from outer to main islands, and from smaller to larger towns. The next journeys were overseas, to the primary destinations of New Zealand, Australia, and the United States. At the time, migration from Tonga was a welcome solution to rampant population growth. With raw birth rates that often exceeded 35/1,000, the national population had swelled to 77,429 by 1966, more than double the 1930s level, and by 1976, the population, at more than 90,000, had almost tripled. Central planners in Tonga were necessarily worried about unbridled population growth in a country dependent on small-holder agriculture with a land mass of only 288 square miles, only two-thirds of it arable or planted.

Differentials in wages and educational opportunities—made more critical by the land shortage— fueled overseas migration. Tongan islanders ventured to New Zealand and Australia, the closest industrial nations and fellow members of the British Commonwealth, but also to the United States.

Many of the earliest Tongan emigrants to the U.S. were converts to Mormonism (Church of the Latter Day Saints or LDS), the result of intensive missionary activity in Tonga. The LDS church provided new converts with a plane ticket to the United States, a fact which greatly encouraged conversion. The policy resulted in the establishment of some of the first Tongan-American communities in the U.S. in Salt Lake City, Utah and Oahu, Hawaii.

Beginning as a trickle in the 1950s, Tongans' overseas migration stepped up after 1965, when the U.S. relaxed migration policies for non-Europeans, and burgeoned during the 1970s and 1980s, reaching migration rates of more than two percent annually. By the mid-1980s, more than 1,900 Tongans were leaving Tonga each year, slowing the natural population growth rate of 2.3 percent annually to only 0.3 by the census year 1996.

The results of three decades of migration were apparent in the last Tongan census. Of Tonga's population of 97,784, almost seven of 10 Tongans now reside on the main island of Tongatapu, and practically one-quarter of the entire population lives in the capital, Nuku'alofa. Outer island areas are depopulating rapidly, leading to new government policies aimed at stemming the tide of internal population movement. Although recent population estimates suggest that migration overseas may be slowing, today half of the estimated 216,000 Tongans in the world are abroad, and almost every household has a relative resident in another country. About two in 10 of Tonga's expatriates are residents of Australia, while four out of every 10 overseas Tongans live in the U.S., and another four out of 10 live in New Zealand. The connections between migrants and their homeland have created a new global village of Tongans, with profound implications for their homeland.

Migration, Remittances, and the Tongan Economy

The out-migration of Tongans has had many more ramifications than the curbing of population growth. At both the village and national levels, migration and migrants have become central to the economic and social fabric of contemporary Tongan society.

Like many other Pacific island nations, Tonga has become a so-called MIRAB economy, that is, an economy dependent on migration, remittances, foreign aid, and government bureaucracy as its major sources of revenue. Despite efforts to diversify, Tonga has a limited export sector, consisting of agricultural exports including squash, fish, root crops, vanilla, and kava, and a fledging tourist industry. Since the 1960s, imports have exceeded exports, resulting in a consistent pattern of negative trade balances. In 2002, total imports to Tonga were more than six times its exports. Building materials, agricultural chemicals, fuel, and imported food (despite the fact that 65 percent of the work force is in agriculture) make up the bulk of imported items.

It is migration, along with the remittances of cash and goods from migrants who live and work overseas, that keeps the Tongan economy afloat. At the national level, remittances are the major source of foreign exchange and accounted in FY2002 for about 50 percent of GDP. At the village and household levels, remittances are an integral part of income and consumption. In addition to receiving shipping containers filled with appliances, clothing, toys, and building materials, villagers are regularly sent cash remittances from their relatives overseas. Seventy-five percent of all Tongan households report receiving remittances from overseas, making remittances the single most widespread source of income in Tonga. Remittances also comprise a sizable proportion of total household income, second only nationally to "wages and salaries" as the largest income source. At a national level, reported remittances—and there is ample evidence that much more is received than formally reported—comprise 22 percent of income derived from all cash sources, including wages, salaries, and sales of produce. In some villages, remittances account for as much as 50 percent of all household income.

Although individuals and families are the main benefactors of remittances from overseas Tongans, communal remittances are also extremely important in Tonga, and have greater economic significance here than in most other areas of the world. Overseas Tongans regularly send back money to their villages and local institutions, underwriting public ceremonial events, such as the anniversary of a local school, and funding practical communal projects, such as the purchase of a new village water pump.

Overseas Tongans have, perhaps unwittingly, re-oriented income-generating activities in the village as well. Where villagers wanting extra cash once concentrated on handicraft items for tourists—baskets, tikis, and tapa cloth placemats—there is now a robust trade in traditional wealth and food items for Tongans. Village women are much busier making tapa cloth and pandanus mats for visiting Tongans or relatives overseas, and men have found new markets for kava and traditional food items.

The tourist industry itself is now bolstered substantially by overseas Tongans' visits "home" for holidays and special events. Of the reported 35,000 tourists who visited the kingdom in 2002, about half had come to visit friends and relatives. This is more than six times the proportion of visiting relatives just two decades ago, and a clear indication of the currently critical role of Tongan migrants in the tourist economy.

The diverse contributions of migrants to the Tongan economy—from family remittances, to communal aid, to tourism and business investments—have not escaped the notice of the Tongan government, which has responded by supporting overseas Tongans with favorable domestic policies. Tongans wishing to become citizens overseas may retain their Tongan citizenship as well as their land rights in Tonga. The king quashed proposed legislation that would limit the land rights of those residents permanently overseas, out of the legitimate fear that such a law would anger overseas Tongans and diminish remittances.

All told, migration underwrites a relatively prosperous island lifestyle, and rural Tongans enjoy many more amenities than they once had. In 1986, fewer than five percent of Tongan households owned a refrigerator and less than three percent owned a motor vehicle. Spurred by remittance money, ownership of a vehicle had climbed by 1996 to 34.4 percent of households and almost half of all households had a refrigerator. Running water and electricity are now available in Tonga's more remote areas, and phones, TVs, VCRs, and other appliances are increasingly common village fare.

While most Tongans appreciate the increased material abundance that migration and remittances have brought, they must also deal with migration's economic downsides. Out-migration coupled with high birth rates has left a higher proportion of young and old in the kingdom, resulting in high dependency ratios (79 percent in 1996) in the villages.

Overseas money flowing into the kingdom has encouraged a high rate of consumption, but that material prosperity is coupled with high inflation rates—more than 10 percent in 2002 and 2003—and uncertainty about how long the overseas largesse will continue.

Tongans Overseas

In many ways, the health of the Tongan economy depends on its relationship to migrants, on migrants' enduring sentiments about Tonga, and on the economic success of migrants in their new countries. Thus far, Tongans overseas have sent a steady stream of remittances home, one that does not appear to deteriorate markedly with the amount of time a migrant is overseas. Migrants visit in large numbers and invest in Tongan businesses, stimulating the local economy, just as they provide substantial community aid, particularly in times of greatest need. But the future of these revenue streams is uncertain. They depend on the changing social and economic fabric of overseas Tongan communities.

The first Tongan migrants were young single men, and occasionally women, who left home ostensibly for a few years to earn high overseas wages that would help feather nests back in Tonga. Many "temporary" migrants, however, became permanent. Individuals or couples who had made a foothold overseas in the 1960s began bringing over family members, providing housing and support for the new migrants until they could manage a residence of their own. This "chain migration" resulted in geographical concentrations of Tongans—in Auckland, New Zealand or Melbourne, Australia; San Mateo, California or Oahu, Hawaii—where the Tongan language and customs were retained and new migrants could find a dense network of social and financial support. A new migrant could find a Tongan church service, a Polynesian grocery store or dance troupe, a Tongan kava-drinking club, and a travel agent who spoke the mother tongue.

Because of their potential for support and familiarity, these communities attracted even more Tongans. Between 1980 and 1990, the U.S. population of Tongans rose 58 percent; in the five-year period between 1996 and 2001, New Zealand saw a 30 percent increase, and the number of Tongans entering Australia each year tripled during the 1990s.

The Tongan islands have remained an integral part of these burgeoning overseas communities, both materially and ideologically. Tonga means "home" to many and the source of wanted news, relationships, and traditions. Overseas Tongans teach island history, folklore, customs, and family ways in an attempt to raise their children with Tongan values; island dignitaries, customs, dance, traditional goods, and food from the islands remain central in reproducing Tongan-ness (anga fakaTonga) overseas. The return flow of these identity processes is continued remittances and visits to Tonga.

In part, the ability of overseas Tongans to continue their high level of remittances is based on their own economic success. Tongan migration was fueled by the wage differentials between Tonga and the host countries, and still, in 2003, a Tongan migrant in the U.S. earned 10 times more than a Tongan islander. However, compared to norms in their host countries, Tongans overseas earn much less than their non-Tongan counterparts, only about 75 percent of the earnings other New Zealanders and 70 percent of the earnings other Americans. Tongans overseas have higher rates of underemployment and unemployment, and occupy jobs in sales, service, construction, manufacturing, and transportation that are more vulnerable to the fluctuations of the economy. All this makes it more difficult to sustain large and regular remittances.

Perhaps the biggest threat to the stability of remittance patterns, however, is the natural transformation of the migrant population itself. Because migration only really began in earnest in the late 1960s, most Tongans overseas in the 1980s were not only relatively recent migrants, they were also Tongan-born. These Tongans, however, produced a next generation of Tongan-Americans, Tongan-Zealanders, and Tongan-Australians. This generation will soon come of age, have children of their own, and hold the economic purse strings.

In 2004, the composition of the Tongan overseas population is on the brink of changing, only a few years away from having the majority of its members be overseas born. In the United States, 46.5 percent of Tongans (by race) in the 2000 Census were born in the United States. In New Zealand, the overseas born, at 53 percent, have already become the majority. Although this population is still young, within a decade or two, they will be the ones making the primary economic decisions.

This new generation of New Zealanders, Americans, and Australians with Tongan heritage has more tenuous ties to Tonga. Although their identification as Tongans is still generally strong, they have never lived in a village, felt the same loyalty to a local noble, or grown up with people who are living in Tonga. About 40 percent of this overseas-born group cannot hold an everyday conversation in Tongan, and a considerable number have never seen the islands. One can only guess the future effects of these demographic changes on remittances, but they do not bode well for the Tongan economy. It is unlikely that these children and grandchildren of migrants will remit as strongly or as consistently as those who have known Tonga as their childhood home.

Political Reverberations in the Kingdom

Migrants, as well as the prospect of their declining remittances, figure importantly in the growing political tensions within the kingdom. For many years, migration has been a stop-gap way of dealing with economic discontent, funneling large numbers of prospective job seekers overseas at the same time that it has propped up local Tongan assets and aspirations with remittance money. As planners look to the future, when remittances threaten to slow, the economic horizon looks bleaker unless new actions are taken. This prospect is bringing new political issues to the fore.

Tongan youth continue to move in large numbers from Tonga's outer islands to its main island in search of work, and each year 700-800 school leavers graduate with the expectation of salaried government employment or a place in industry. However, Tonga's government bureaucracy cannot keep pace with the demand for jobs, even among its educated. If anything, the government sector is cutting back. To stabilize its economy and cut costs, planners are proposing to reduce wages and cut more than 550 civil service posts. The government is scrambling to address its employment crisis by revamping the educational system to prepare school leavers for non-government work, by discouraging internal migration, and by promoting the development of private-sector jobs.

Although the expansion of the private sector was a major priority in Tonga's seventh Strategic Development Plan (2001–2003), private industry has been lethargic, accounting for only 19 percent of jobs in the last census. In 2003, manufacturing represented only a scant three percent of GNP. Without substantial job openings in either industry or government bureaucracy, the country faces growing internal problems as it attempts to deal with rapidly rising underemployment and unemployment, now at 13.3 percent. Discontent with employment opportunities is one of the key issues feeding the Tongan Democracy Movement (TDM), which has simultaneously been fueled by the expansion of Tonga's middle class and its influential overseas communities.

Democracy, middle class life, and migration are all related historical phenomenon, and it is no surprise that the sentiment for democratic reform in Tonga began to arise in the late 1970s, after migration was in full swing. With many family members residing overseas and remitting, Tongan villagers saw rising expectations for themselves in income, lifestyle, and education, as well as a wider political purview that included both greater familiarity with democratic systems and new social attitudes in their overseas relatives.

By the 1990s, this democratic sentiment had congealed into the TDM, which was formally organized in 1992, according to its website, to "...to achieve the goal of forming an open, free and democratic government of the people, elected by the people, for the people, based on the principles of equality, justice and peace." Among its targets for complaints is the composition of Tonga's Legislative Assembly, which is made up of 30 voting members. Disproportionate power is held by the king and nobles because Tonga's 33 noble families elect nine seats; more than 100,000 commoners elect another nine "People's Representatives" seats; and the king appoints the additional 12 seats from among his own cabinet ministers. The TDM aims include greater equality for commoners in parliamentary power, more government accountability, and an equal distribution of educational and economic opportunities.

In its short history, the TDM has fought on two primary fronts: electing pro-democracy candidates to the People's Representatives seats, and exposing irregularities and inequities in the political system through the press. In the 1993 elections, pro-democracy candidates won six commoner seats, and since this time a pro-democracy bloc has held the majority of such seats. In the March 2002 election, seven of nine elected representatives of the people were chosen under the pro-democracy banner, with the remaining two representing "traditionalist" values.

During this process, the alternative press—alternative, that is, to the government-controlled daily newspaper, the Tongan Chronicle— has provided an important forum to air grievances and publish accusations of mismanagement and financial abuse lodged by the TDM, which recently renamed itself the Tonga Human Rights & Democracy Movement (THRDM). One of these papers, The Tongan Times, is at the center of a recent controversy that threatens to produce significant changes in the political climate.

In February of 2003, the king banned the paper, which is published in the Tongan language from the Tongan editor's home base in New Zealand, and serves both Tongan islanders and migrants. After the courts overturned the ban, the royalty-controlled Legislative Assembly initiated and passed legislation to "allow the government to exert control over coverage of 'cultural' and 'moral' issues, ban publications it deems offensive, and ban foreign ownership of the media," according to the U.S. Department of State. The new legislation also limited the right of courts to review royal decisions. In October 2003, this legislation spurred the largest protest in Tongan history, after which, in mid-December, the king very quietly signed the newspaper ban into law. In 2004, the new law has already been used to confiscate copies of The Tongan Times from shelves in the capital.

The facts of the protest—everything from its size, to its membership, to its meaning—are hotly disputed among royal and pro-democracy spokesmen. Royal representatives suggest that the protest was marginal, and that the democracy movement is made up of a fringe Catholic minority and overseas migrants and foreigners. However, there is clearly wide support within the kingdom, even among some of Tonga's nobles, for pro-democracy issues such as government accountability.

While democracy supporters, including the overseas press, represent the king as an unsupported "quasi-dictator," many Tongans—even those in the THRDM—have an abiding loyalty to traditional Tongan life, including its respect for chiefly presence, prerogative, and privilege. It is yet unclear whether the Tongan people would really support a full Western-style representative democracy. What is clear, however, is that the incident is but one example of an overarching 21st century process: the production of new national sensibilities and issues through the interaction of global and local forces. Migration has played a key role in this process, and will continue to loom large in Tonga's economic, political, and cultural future.

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