In all of these efforts, a policy that has been at the heart of neighbors’ relations with the Pacific for decades has been overlooked: migration.
The challenges for small island countries like those in the Pacific are unique. Their number includes relatively wealthy territories like Palau, the Cook Islands and French Polynesia, which occupy a status between full independence and the support of their former settlers. On the other hand, the region also includes nations like Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Kiribati, which receive much less aid and whose levels of development are often comparable to those of sub-Saharan Africa.
Along with long-standing issues of physical isolation and slow economic development, the region is also most at risk from climate change. Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands are among the lowest nations in the world. Long before the islands themselves were claimed by the sea, the fragile layers of rainwater that keep the thin soils irrigated are at risk of being disrupted by salt water. The heavy reliance on imported food across the Pacific is one of the reasons the region has one of the highest incidences of diabetes in the world.
Migration has long been at the heart of Pacific relations with the rest of the world. The Marshallese and Palauan diasporas in the United States comprise about half the number of people living in those respective countries, thanks to the fact that they, as well as citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia, have full employment and residency rights there. . There are approximately four times as many Samoan Americans as American Samoans. People born in New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands are full citizens of France and the United States. New Zealand has a green card-style program for citizens of Samoa and four other Pacific countries that grants permanent residency to 1,750 people a year.
The gap in this image is Australia. Unlike New Zealand, whose Pacific Islander population makes up about 8% of the total (Maori make up another 16.5%), it has long turned its back on the region.
In the 19th century, tens of thousands of people from the Melanesian islands were kidnapped or made to work in the sugar industry of Queensland under conditions little different from slavery. One of the first laws passed after independence in 1901 was a law to deport the remaining 10,000 or so, an element of the racist ‘White Australia’ policy which was only ultimately dismantled in the 1970s.
The country’s Pacific-born population is now just 190,170, compared to 381,642 in New Zealand and 1.4 million in the United States, which is proportionally not much higher than in 1901. In the he popular spirit, ‘migration’ and the ‘Pacific Islands’ are mainly associated. with the grim detention centers of the Manus Islands, Papua New Guinea and Nauru, where Australia has sent refugees for many years instead of processing their claims on land.
To its credit, the new Labor government promised to provide a permanent migration scheme similar to that of New Zealand, which would provide 3,000 visas a year to islanders. It also boosts existing temporary labor migration flows to allow family members to travel as well and strengthens protections against worker exploitation.
It’s welcome, but it could afford to be much more generous. If 10,000 visas a year were available to the most isolated populations in the Pacific – those of Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu – then, within a decade, Australia could boast of having diasporas equivalent to 10% of the population of their country of origin. These migrants would be able to support island economies by sending money home, while creating a web of ties that Beijing would find hard to disrupt.
More visas should be provided for Papua New Guinea, Australia’s closest neighbor and a nation it has neglected since the end of colonial rule in 1975 – although its population of nearly 9 million population is not as closely tied to a foreign diaspora as small island nations.
Nations seeking to counter China’s influence in the Pacific should not be surprised if island governments are enthusiastic about the arrival of a new power in the region. If they want to thwart this change, friendship and migration will do much more than harassment and promises of help.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• China has yet to learn the rules of Pacific chess: David Fickling
• The West has forgotten the islands of the Pacific. China didn’t: Ruth Pollard
• China wins victory in new South Pacific battle: James Stavridis
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy and commodities. Previously, he worked for Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.
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