E.g., 09/29/2023
E.g., 09/29/2023
Fiji Islands: From Immigration to Emigration

Fiji Islands: From Immigration to Emigration

fj map

The Fiji Islands in the Southwest Pacific are bit like Winston Churchill's Russia: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Strategically located, easily the most economically developed of the South Pacific Islands, home to the most important institutions of regional cooperation, Fiji is also prone to self-inflicted wounds with crippling consequences. Three coups in 13 years, two in 1987 and one in 2000, have dealt a severe blow to the islands' economy, shaken investor confidence, strained race relations already frayed in an ethnically divided society, and corrupted the institutions and practices of good governance. Perhaps the most important consequence in the long term has been the emigration of the country's best and brightest to greener pastures in North America and Australasia, draining the small island nation of skills and talent it can ill-afford to lose. The tide of emigration is not likely to ebb anytime soon.

Fiji is a multiethnic nation of about 800,000. Indigenous Fijians account for 51 percent of the population and Indo-Fijians about 43 per cent. The remaining six percent comprises Europeans and people of mixed Fijian-European ancestry, Chinese, Pacific Islanders, and others. Fiji became a British Crown Colony in 1874, and an independent nation within the British Commonwealth of Nations in 1970. From independence to 1987, Fiji was ruled by a political party dominated by indigenous Fijians (with support from a section of the Indo-Fijian community and the smaller minority communities) headed by a high chief, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. A change in government in 1987 brought a multiracial Labor coalition to power. Headed by an indigenous Fijian, Dr. Timoci Bavadra, the coalition was ousted by a military coup led by the then Lt. Col. Sitiveni Rabuka. A constitution imposed by a presidential decree in 1990 effectively disfranchised the Indo-Fijian community. A new constitution, multiracial and democratic, based on widespread consultation was promulgated in 1997, under which, two years later, a Labor coalition government was elected. That government was ousted in a civilian-led coup in 2000. The present almost exclusively indigenous Fijian government uses nationalist rhetoric, and has committed itself to reviewing the constitution to re-entrench indigenous Fijian control of national politics. Having played the race card to win power, it has no other choice, riding a tiger it cannot dismount at will.

Foundations of Multiracialism

The foundations of a multiracial Fiji were laid in the late 19th century. The first colonial governor of Fiji, Sir Arthur Gordon, introduced Indian indentured laborers to work on Australian-owned sugar cane plantations. Gordon prohibited indigenous Fijians from commercial employment so that they could enjoy their traditional lifestyle undisrupted by contact with outside forces, and thus escape the fate that befell other indigenous communities that came into contact with the outside world. The introduction of Indian indentured laborers into Fiji was a key element of Gordon's policy to protect the indigenous community. Between 1879 and 1916, 60,000 indentured laborers went to Fiji, and their work helped create the foundations of Fiji's sugar-based economy. Most of the migrants chose to remain in the islands after the expiration of their five-year contracts. Their descendants constitute the bulk of the present Indo-Fijian population, the rest being descendants of Gujarati traders and Punjabi agriculturalists who arrived in the 1920s. Once the indentured labor system was abolished in Fiji in 1920, Indo-Fijians settled in the sugar cane belts of Fiji, principally on the two main islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. By the end of World War II, Indo-Fijians outnumbered the indigenous Fijians in the total population. This trend, which was not reversed until the 1980s, caused concern among indigenous Fijians about their place and identity in their own ancestral land.

Fiji's recent political turbulence sets the context for understanding the complex dynamics of its citizens' emigration. Since the coups, emigration from Fiji has exhibited two main characteristics. The first is the dramatic increase in emigration since the coups of 1987. Between 1978 and 1986, 20,703 Fijian citizens emigrated at an annual average rate of 2,300. Between 1987 and 1996, the number increased to 50,050 at an annual average rate of 5,005. Between 1997 and 2000 alone, 16,825 people migrated. And the numbers are increasing daily.

The second characteristic is that the bulk of the emigrants — about 90 per cent — have been Indo-Fijians. In more recent years, educated and skilled indigenous Fijians and other ethnic minority members of the middle class have begun leaving Fiji, but their numbers, while growing, are still small. In the early 1980s, about 60 per cent of the Fiji emigrants went to Canada and the west coast of the United States, and the bulk of the rest to Australia and New Zealand. North American emigration policies were more open, transparent, and welcoming of emigrants with skills. But the 1990s saw a shift in the trend, with about two-thirds of people emigrating from Fiji to Australia. The reversal is the result of many factors, including the opening up of skills-based emigration, family reunion, chain migration, and an increasing perception of greater employment opportunities. The physical proximity of these countries to Fiji, the ease of communication and travel, the sporting, cultural, and economic links are also important.

Indo-Fijians are leaving Fiji in large numbers for several reasons. Political uncertainty is the most important. Independence in 1970 had promised the possibility, or at least the hope, of more inclusive politics and equitable power-sharing between the two major communities. However, this promise vanished in the wake of ethnically divisive elections. Feeling locked out, Indo-Fijians began leaving Fiji in slowly growing numbers. The trickle became a torrent after the coups of 1987. The political culture of racial patronage the coups spawned effectively marginalized the community. Employment opportunities in the public sector, formerly dominated by the Indo-Fijians, diminished as appointments and promotions frequently became dominated by indigenous ethnicity and political patronage. People left because they saw few prospects of advancement for themselves, and especially for their children.

Nationalism and Emigration

Prominent Fijian nationalists insist that Indo-Fijians must content themselves to be second-class citizens, or at least let indigenous Fijians run the country. They claim political leadership as a "birthright" by virtue of their status as the indigenous people of the country. For them, primordial loyalties and attachments rather than political ideology should frame the national political culture. They want the constitution changed to reflect the indigenous Fijians' privileged position in national life. A Constitutional Review Committee, commissioned by the then interim government after the May 2000 coup, was designed to achieve that end. Its report "does not accept Indo-Fijians as citizens with equal rights as any other community to be part of this multicultural country," says Fijian civic activist Jone Dakuvula, a Fijian committed to democracy and ethnic and social justice. What the report "is really saying," according to Dakuvula, "is that Indo-Fijians do not belong to this country. They should not exercise their political rights freely, or they should not aspire to be part of a democratically [elected] government of national unity. The implication of [the report's argument] is that Indo-Fijians should be compelled to leave if they do not accept the nationalist constitution [the committee members] favor." The current government headed by Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, which came to power after the 2001 general elections, has vaguely sought to be more inclusive, but its hands are tied, and its public (or at least rhetorical) support of genuine multiracialism is unconvincing, especially when it refuses to reprimand government members who incite racial hatred.

Seeking Opportunity Abroad

There are other factors underlying the emigration of Indo-Fijians. Among them is the imminent expiry of agricultural leases. In Fiji, nearly 90 percent of all land is held in inalienable right by indigenous Fijians. This land can only be leased to tenants, most of whom happen to be Indo-Fijians. Thirty-year leases were granted in the late 1960s and early 1970s under the Agricultural Landlord and Tenant Act. These leases have begun to expire, and the landowners are reluctant to renew them either because they themselves want to enter commercial agriculture or because they demand substantially higher rentals under new lease arrangements. Unable or unwilling to meet new terms and conditions, tenants leave to start life anew in another place, often as strangers, while their recently vacated and once-productive land gradually reverts to bush, damaging the national economy and straining race relations. The future of the sugar industry, in whose development the Indo-Fijians have played a significant role, looks decidedly bleak.

Another problem is the continuing uncertainty about the future of Fijian sugar producers' current preferential access to the European Union market. The government is discussing restructuring the sugar industry to make it more efficient and competitive, but a solution broadly acceptable to sugar growers, landowners, and others involved in the industry does not seem feasible in the near future.

Emigration offers a way out. Most farmers, unskilled and uneducated, cannot leave, but they hope that their children will, by one means or another. The choice of subjects children study in high school and at university is heavily influenced by its effectiveness in securing enough points for them to qualify for migration.


It is often said that there is hardly a single Indo-Fijian family in Fiji that does not have at least one member abroad. The expectation is that those who migrate will assist those who remain behind. This expectation and the changing context of global capitalism has produced a new kind of migrant described in the literature as "transmigrants." Transmigrants often develop and maintain multiple relations — economic, social, organisational — that cut across national boundaries. They "take actions, make decisions, feel concerns, and develop identities within social networks that connect them to two or more societies simultaneously." Indo-Fijians — indeed, other Fijians who also migrate — are quintessential transmigrants.

Although they live abroad, they maintain active contact with Fiji through a variety of means: the internet, telephone, video, periodic re-visits, and by remitting money and goods to Fiji. Migrants send regular remittances to parents and siblings, and shoulder responsibility for schooling, weddings, and other life-cycle events. Sometimes they provide funds to purchase or lease land, construct or improve homes, pay off debts, buy clothes, gold, and other ornaments on special occasions, or meet medical expenses of close relatives. Funds are raised communally to meet losses sustained through hurricane, flood, and drought. Increasingly, Indo-Fijian cultural and social associations overseas have begun sponsoring Indo-Fijian students in Fiji. The level of financial support is considerable, though its exact magnitude is unknown.

The cost of emigration to Fiji, however, is well known. Fiji is estimated to lose, on average, $F44.5 million annually due to emigration, mainly through loss of skill, re-training new appointees, and delayed appointments. The figure is much higher — $F274.7 million — if account is taken of the output lost if the emigrant's work is not carried out by a replacement. The migrants come from the skilled and educated sector of Fiji. According to Manoranjan Mohanty, a demographic geographer at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, between 1987 and 1996, 5,100 Indo-Fijian professionals emigrated, of whom 21 percent were architects, engineers, and related technicians, 15 percent accountants, 31 percent teachers, 12 percent medical, dental, veterinary, and related workers, and 21 percent other professionals. The impact of their loss on Fiji is visible and acutely felt, particularly in health and education. Once reasonably self-sufficient in medical personnel, Fiji now imports doctors from overseas. And there is a growing shortage of science and mathematics teachers as well. Continuing political turbulence in Fiji — roadblocks, urban crime, talk of another coup — will encourage more migration in the future.

Official response to Indo-Fijian emigration is mixed. At one level, there is regret and concern at the enormous loss of talent and skill, as well as some understanding of why this is taking place. At another, there is the "thank-goodness" attitude among those who stand to benefit from the emigration of Indo-Fijians, particularly those in the public sector. Fijian nationalists applaud their departure as a necessary first step in the "Fijianisation" of their country, a price the country "must" pay to reclaim its indigenous soul. This leaves Indo-Fijians caught between a rock and a hard place. They are accused of being disloyal to the country because they emigrate. Yet, those who remain find it difficult to get a place at the indigenous Fijian table. The government is reluctant to invest in citizens it knows it will lose in the end, while the denial of opportunity only makes Indo-Fijians more determined to leave.

Fiji's Indians immigrated to Fiji as indentured laborers in the late 19th and 20th centuries to build an economy and provide cheap labor, so that the indigenous community could be spared the ordeals of plantation work and left alone to progress at their own pace in their own subsistence economy. It is no exaggeration to say that it was the contribution of Indian labor to the colonial economy that helped shield the indigenous community from the corrosive effects of the modern world. But the descendants of those indentured servants, despite their key role in Fiji's economic and social development, are now perceived as hindering the rightful progress of indigenous Fijians. This perception is not likely to change in the near future, which means continued high levels of emigration by Indo-Fijians seeking new opportunities abroad.


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