Tongan EmigrantsTonga is an archipelago in the South Pacific and the last surviving Polynesian kingdom. While isolation, limited markets, frequent earthquakes and cyclones pose a threat to native Tongans, emigration has had a positive economic impact both on Tongan emigrants and native Tongans. Here are nine facts about Tongan emigrants you should know:

  1. Tonga has retained much of its heritage despite 70 years of British colonial rule. The country gained independence and became a member of the British Commonwealth in 1970. Immigration patterns have helped maintain Tongan culture overseas: Emigrants have brought their families abroad, resulting in high concentrations of Tongans in cities like Auckland, New Zealand or Oahu, Hawaii where Tongan language and customs are preserved.
  2. One of the first motivations for Tongans to emigrate was population growth. In 1976, Tonga’s population tripled what it had been in the 1930s. The country’s relatively little land combined with a potential food shortage and greater educational opportunity abroad drove most Tongan emigrants to New Zealand, Australia and the U.S.
  3. Many early Tongan emigrants converted to Mormonism. The Church of Latter Day Saints conducted extensive missionary efforts in Tonga, and converts were offered free plane tickets to the U.S. This led to the creation of one of the first Tongan-American communities in Salt Lake City, Utah.
  4. Today, half of roughly 216,000 Tongans live abroad.
  5. Thirty percent of Tonga’s GDP comes from remittances, or sums of money sent from Tongans abroad to their families at home. Remittances come in the form of cash as well as material goods such as appliances and clothing. They are essential to the Tongan economy as Tonga has few exports, there are few salaried jobs available to young adults and unemployment is common in rural areas.
  6. However, remittances do have their drawbacks—money flowing into the country has caused a spike in material consumption, which has in turn caused inflation.
  7. Even Tonga’s tourism industry is bolstered by Tongan emigrants. Large families who have moved away visit Tonga frequently and support the country’s economy by spending money at local businesses.
  8. The longevity of remittances as the basis of Tonga’s economy currently lies in doubt. As more Tongans are born abroad, some fear that young Tongans’ connections to their home country could be weaker and that remittances could diminish.
  9. Another factor that contributes to economic instability in Tonga is the common occurrence of natural disasters. Tonga is part of the “Ring of Fire,” an area prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions near the basin of the Pacific Ocean. In addition, Tonga’s tropical cyclone season takes place November through April, though cyclones can occur at any point during the year. The variety and frequency of natural disasters in Tonga could threaten Tonga’s agricultural export infrastructure.

While Tonga’s economy faces some challenges, the Tongan population has been steadily increasing for decades. Notably, the rate of population increase spiked from 0.35 percent in 2013 to 0.82 percent in 2017. Tongans born abroad will have complex and varied relationships to their native country as time goes on, but the fact their numbers are increasing suggests that Tonga will be able to count on its emigrants for remittances for years to come.

Caroline Meyers
Photo: Flickr