E.g., 04/17/2024
E.g., 04/17/2024
The Federated States of Micronesia: The "Push" to Migrate

The Federated States of Micronesia: The "Push" to Migrate

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A wave of emigration from the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) was set in motion in 1986, when the Pacific Island state signed a Compact of Free Association with the United States. "The Compact" provided the FSM with critical economic development aid. More significantly, however, it provided FSM citizens with the right to migrate freely to the United States and its territories and commonwealths. Before the Compact, only a limited number of Micronesians emigrated, usually moving to other Pacific Island countries, such as Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI), for jobs or advanced education. The pace of emigration changed quickly after the Compact was signed, as did the ultimate destinations. Within weeks, whole families of Micronesians and especially young, single men began leaving the FSM for countries overseas, at first to Guam and the CNMI and later to Hawaii and the U.S. mainland.

A number of leaders in the FSM were shocked by how quickly so many people took advantage of the migration provision. However, this rapid out-migration may not be as surprising as it first might seem. Economic, education, and internal migration trends that had occurred in the FSM since the 1960s, many indirectly generated by U.S. policies in the Pacific, created a "surplus" population of increasingly educated, under-employed, and mobile individuals. Those who left immediately after the signing of the Compact may have already been preparing to emigrate, if given the opportunity.

The Federated States of Micronesia

The FSM is located approximately 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii and consists of 607 islands spread throughout approximately one million square miles in the western Pacific Ocean. Although the area encompassing the FSM is large, the total land area is only 271 square miles. The 607 islands vary from large, mountainous islands of volcanic origin to raised limestone islands to small atolls. The islands are divided into four states: Chuuk, Pohnpei, Yap, and Kosrae. Traditionally, the FSM was a subsistence economy and even today the economic activity of the islands consists primarily of subsistence farming and fishing. Resource-poor and remote, the FSM has minimal development potential beyond fisheries and tourism. The majority of the population is ethnically Micronesian and, along with a few smaller ethnically Polynesian groups, is descended from the islands' original inhabitants.

During the early 16th century, explorers claimed the FSM as part of Spain's growing Pacific Empire, but apart from brief visits by Europeans and Americans during the early 19th century, there was little contact between the island's inhabitants and non-Micronesians until the mid-1800s. Following Spain's defeat in the Spanish-American war, Germany purchased the FSM and other Pacific territories from Spain in 1899. At the onset of Germany's involvement in World War I in 1914, Japanese military forces occupied German-held Micronesian territories and continued to administer the area until 1945.

The United States occupied the FSM at the end of World War II, and in 1947 the islands became part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI). The TTPI was a strategic area established by the United Nations and administered by the United States. In 1979, the former TTPI districts of Chuuk, Pohnpei, Yap, and Kosrae approved a constitution and became a newly independent, self-governing nation, separate from the remaining TTPI areas. The U.S. and FSM governments ratified the Compact of Free Association in 1986, officially ending U.S. administration and defining future bilateral relations.

During the U.S. administration of the TTPI, the population of the FSM grew rapidly. This is attributed to the introduction and widespread availability of modern medicine and health technology in the immediate post-war period, which helped control many of the diseases that persisted until the end of World War II. After the mid-1950s, the populations of each state experienced sustained and often rapid growth, resulting in modern populations larger than those previously recorded. This rapid growth continued into the 1980s, slowing considerably in the 1990s, which was in part due to the increase in emigration after 1986. Regardless of this decline in growth, as of 2000 the population of the FSM was still young, with over half of its 107,008 residents less than 20 years of age.

U.S. Policies and the Creation of Migration "Push" Factors

The Compact provided the FSM with critical economic development aid in exchange for the exclusive use of its land, airspace, and territorial waters by the United States for military purposes. The goal of this aid, which has been substantial – nearly $100 million annually since 1986 – was to facilitate the island nation's efforts to establish a stable democratic government and move towards greater economic independence.

Throughout the 20th century, residents of the present-day FSM migrated in small numbers to other Pacific Islands. The influx of development aid by the United States into the TTPI in the 1960s brought about a small increase in mobility. However, emigration from the FSM began in earnest in the late 1980s after the Compact was signed. This surge in emigration was the result of a clause in the Compact that grants FSM citizens the right to enter, reside, and work anywhere in the United States and its territories and commonwealths, including Guam and the CNMI, two of FSM's closest neighbors.

While the Compact helps explain the timing of this migration, it does not explain why so many migrated so quickly after it was signed in 1986. This readiness to emigrate can be partially explained by the pressures of a rapidly growing population on a resource-poor economy. However, the post-war social, political, and economic policies of the United States also contributed to this readiness by creating an educated and wage-dependent population that, in turn, caused a dramatic increase in internal migration in the FSM. Three policies were especially important in creating this mobility.

First, the infusion of funds by the United States and the development of a wage economy undermined the subsistence economy that predominated until the 1960s. This increased the importance of money, and by the late 1970s, fewer and fewer households produced their own food, which increased the need for wage employment to obtain basic subsistence needs. Household members migrated to those growing population centers where jobs were available.

Second, the policy of universal education and the development of the education infrastructure led to an education explosion in the 1970s, resulting in a dramatic increase in the number of high-school and college graduates. Many Micronesians saw education as an investment that would lead to wage employment in the growing economy. Internal migration increased as students moved to education centers and as high school graduates and returning college graduates moved to find jobs.

Finally, after the four states of the FSM declared independence, the U.S. administration dramatically reduced the level of funds it channeled into the FSM economy. This caused the FSM economy to quickly shrink and resulted in the loss of existing jobs, as well as others that would have been created by economic growth. Rather than face poor employment prospects in the population centers, many former migrants returned to their home islands. This reversed the migration trends of the 1960s and 1970s and increased the level of main-island to outer-island migration in the 1980s.

Thus, these three policies of the United States government, although well intentioned, helped create a population in the FSM that was increasingly wage-dependent, educated, unemployed or underemployed, and mobile. Combined with the pressures associated with rapid growth, these trends created a population ripe for international migration.

Micronesian Populations Overseas

There is no single estimate of the number of FSM citizens living abroad. The most recent census data for 2000 indicated that there were 2,197 FSM migrants in the CNMI, and 6,983 on Guam. A 1997 survey of Micronesian migrants living in Hawaii found 3,085 FSM migrants. Results from Census 2000 for the United States found approximately 1,900 who reported Pohnpeian, Chuukese, Yapese, or Kosraean as their race, although these could be immigrants or natives. A further 9,900 reported the generic term Micronesian, which could be used by the FSM or other Micronesian states, such as Guam and the Marshall Islands. Although small, the migrant communities in the United States and its territories probably account for somewhere between 12 to 16 percent of the total 2000 FSM population.

The Future of FSM Emigration

The Compact guaranteed a certain level of economic assistance for 15 years, extending to late 2001. However, the original negotiators of the agreement knew that even with this aid, it was unlikely that the FSM would be able to generate the level of economic growth necessary to provide enough employment for the country's increasing population. It was because of this that the Micronesian negotiators insisted on the provision that would allow Micronesians to migrate freely to the United States and its territories and to live and work there. Emigration to the United States was seen as a way to lessen the impact of rapid population growth as well as a safety valve if economic development plans failed.

The United States and the FSM began discussing the soon-to-expire provisions of the Compact in the fall of 1999. In May 2003, negotiators for the two sides agreed on amendments to the Compact that will provide $1.8 billion in economic assistance to the FSM over the next 20 years and set up a trust fund to sustain the island country's economy in the future. The migration provision, which was not up for negotiation, remained essentially unchanged.

Like all island countries, the FSM faces many challenges in its quest for greater economic independence and stability. So exceptional are the problems faced by small island states that their special development needs were specifically mentioned in the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals. Given the limited development potential of the FSM, emigration at relatively high levels will likely continue into the foreseeable future. Continued loss of many of its most productive citizens to overseas destinations may prove to be the greatest development challenge for the FSM.


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