E.g., 09/26/2023
E.g., 09/26/2023
Cook Islands: Migrating from a Micro-State

Cook Islands: Migrating from a Micro-State

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The Cook Islands have long provided the archetypical images of the Pacific: a series of 15 islands spread across a million square kilometers of ocean, inhabited by Polynesians in a sub-tropical location. But this image changed in the 1990s, especially given the combination of the effects of migration and the economic difficulties faced by the country. The diasporic population, largely based in New Zealand, now encompasses 70 percent of the total Cook Island community. The origin country faced significant structural and economic adjustment challenges in the 1990s, is struggling financially and politically, and has seen the economic and cultural center of the community shift to New Zealand. This can be traced to a particular history of colonial association and the migration that followed.

Colonial Connections and Migration

The Cook Islands were peopled by Polynesians and include a main island, Rarotonga, and widely dispersed atolls across a large expanse of ocean. The two local languages still spoken are Maori and Pukapukan. Culturally and linguistically, Cook Island Maori are similar to the Maori of New Zealand. The Cook Islands were declared a British Protectorate in 1888 and then annexed by the New Zealand Government in 1901. From 1901 to 1965, the islands were administered by New Zealand, and since 1965, they have operated in "free association" with New Zealand.

Today, while the Cook Islands Government is responsible for local administration, New Zealand is responsible for defence and external affairs. Despite periods when the relationship between the two countries has been troubled, the Cook Islands have not sought full independence for two principal reasons: reliance on aid from New Zealand, and the benefits of New Zealand citizenship.

This colonial connection with New Zealand and the opportunity to move freely between the two countries had little effect until the 1950s. In the post-war period, New Zealand was very short of labor, including semi and unskilled workers. New Zealand employers began to recruit throughout Polynesia, notably Samoa and Tonga. The Cook Islands, along with other New Zealand-administered territories – Tokelau and Niue – saw a combination of factors encouraging migration. Polynesians were looking for greater employment and educational opportunities, employers were looking for new sources of unskilled labour, and the New Zealand Government encouraged migration as a way of providing new opportunities and a future for Pacific peoples.

Migration was aided by colonial connections, which meant that, with some exceptions, the legal, educational and labor laws of New Zealand and the Cook Islands were similar, if not identical. The 1965 statement to the United Nations said: "The Cook Islands people, because of their many natural links with New Zealand, have determined to exercise their right of self-government… but not at this time as a separate, sovereign state." A common legal and policy framework, and what is effectively a common labor market, has encouraged Cook Islanders to emigrate, especially in the post-war period. The flow of migrants from the Cook Islands increased through the 1950s and 1960s.

The Impact of Migration

In the first half of the 20th century, the Cook Islands population rose from 8,213 in 1902 to 15,079 in 1951. The population continued to rise, reaching a peak in 1971 at 21,322, and it now looks to have stabilized around 18,000.

However, there are various demographic impacts upon the resident population. In 1971, the annual intercensual (five years) growth rate was two percent, but this had become -3.2 percent by 1976, reflecting a loss of 3,196 of the local population, and negative growth rates were recorded until 1991. The dependency ratio records the demographic impact, dropping from 121.3 in 1971 to 67.3 in 1991. Despite a crude birth rate (births per thousand resident population) of around 22 through the 1980s and 1990s, the total population has continued to decline and the dependency ratio, especially on the largest island, Rarotonga, has reflected the outmigration of the working age population to New Zealand. The resident population is aging. Furthermore, the population estimates for 2002 of around 18,000 people in the Cook Islands include a considerable visitor proportion, and the "normally resident category" is estimated as being only 13,500.

This is in contrast to the rapid growth of the diasporic population. The first significant migration of Cook Islanders to New Zealand occurred in the 1950s, when they were recruited as unskilled agricultural workers to Hawkes Bay. Chain migration quickly established community networks, and their presence was felt in institutions such as the local Presbyterian churches. Subsequent migration was to other rural areas and single-industry towns such as Kawerau in the central North Island. But increasingly, migration was to the main urban centers and to employment in the service and manufacturing sectors.

Measured by birthplace statistics, the intercensual growth of Cook Islanders in New Zealand was significant. Between 1976 and 1981, the number of Cook Island-born residents in New Zealand grew by 1,692 or 13.9 percent. The effect is that by the 2001 New Zealand Census, there were 52,600 Cook Islanders living in New Zealand, making them the second-largest migrant Pacific population in the country and triple the Cook Island population. The expansion of the New Zealand Cook Island population, through a combination of births and migration, remained high with growth of 5,200 or 11 percent between 1996 and 2001. The population is relatively young (42 percent were under 15 years of age in 2001) and 70 percent had by then been born in New Zealand.

In terms of educational achievement, participation in skilled and professional employment, and income, there are growing differences between New Zealand-born and Cook Island-born New Zealand residents and even greater differences with the origin-country population. While these differences are important, they are less significant than the contrasts between island and New Zealand-born for other migrant Pacific groups, partly because there are common policy frameworks between New Zealand and the Cook Islands, and partly because Cook Island Maori are linguistically and culturally very similar to the indigenous Maori population of New Zealand. Intermarriage, especially with Pakeha (the dominant European-descent population), has helped in this process. There is some reverse migration but the maturation and size of the New Zealand community increasingly makes it the dominant community, economically, politically, and culturally.

Transnationalism and Homeland Politics

The fact that Cook Islanders are New Zealand citizens makes residency and travel between the two countries relatively easy. This is underlined by the economic importance of New Zealand as a destination for Cook Islands products, the fact that there is a common language (English) and a shared educational system, and that there are important cultural connections between the Maori of the Cook Islands and New Zealand. There are also strong historical connections, and substantial transnational networks of goods, people, and capital flowing between the two countries.

As with other Pacific communities, the transnational connections are extensive and regular. In many ways, it is easier to travel or trade between Rarotonga and Auckland than it is among the far-flung islands of the Cooks. However, the relationship between the two countries has experienced some difficulties recently.

By the mid-1990s, two-thirds of the Cook Islands workforce was employed by the Government in some capacity, and the economic management of the country was coming under scrutiny from New Zealand (the main aid donor) and banks in terms of economic stability and credit-worthiness. Debt was $NZ141 million by 1996 and imports were costing $NZ50 million (2000) while exports were earning less than $NZ10 million and total revenue was $NZ28 million.

This situation was compounded by attempts by the Cook Islands Government to generate additional revenue by issuing letters of tax credit to major companies, and then involvement in the provision of online banking and gambling facilities. The New Zealand and Australian governments, in association with some banks, required the Cook Islands Government to undertake major structural reforms in the late 1990s that had a major impact on local employment opportunities and income. More recently, in 2002, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Financial Action Task Force put the Cook Islands, among others, on a blacklist of countries that provided money laundering and tax havens for criminals. The combined effect has been to characterize the Cook Islands (or the "Crook Islands," as one article dubbed them) as mismanaged and involved in dubious financial practices.

In 2001, New Zealand's foreign minister concluded that: "Pacific countries face cumulative stresses arising from population growth, ethnic tensions, widening socio-economic disparities, government failures and the impact of global trends. A long period of instability lies ahead…" These developments encourage ongoing emigration and underscore the significance of the diasporic population to the detriment of the homeland.


New Zealand and the Cook Islands have been culturally and economically linked throughout the 20th century, and while this relationship has been unequal, it has nevertheless meant that Cook Islanders have been brought up with New Zealand as a key reference point. Furthermore, active recruitment by New Zealand employers in the 1950s and 1960s, combined with the ambitions of Cook Islanders to obtain better educational and employment options, signaled a significant increase in the numbers of migrating Cook Islanders in the mid-decades of the 20th century.

By the last decade, the Cook Islanders were in some financial difficulty and New Zealand, as a key aid donor, was requiring structural adjustment to reflect new financial challenges. At a government level, relations have been strained at times, but the decline of the numbers employed in the Cook Islands public service, and the economic difficulties of the economy generally, have encouraged ongoing emigration to New Zealand. The size and relative affluence of the New Zealand-based population presents significant challenges for a Cook Islands government that wants to stem outmigration or attract Cook Islanders home.


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