Niue is a tiny island in the South Pacific, lying to the south of Samoa, to the East of Tonga and about 2,400 km north of New Zealand. About 1400 people live on “The Rock”, an island about 2/3rds the size of the Isle of Wight, or three times larger than the Island of Manhattan. It is a small, thinly populated island, one of many throughout the Pacific. However, this is not the end of the story. While 1400 live on Niue, about 15 times that number live in New Zealand. According to Wikipedia, 90-95% of all Niuean people live in Aotearoa. Nieu is an extreme example of the incredible mobility of people in the late 20th century. It may also be an example of a people that has not died out, but has simply moved on (I will not say to greener pastures because I could conceivably be accused of bias…)

The AP published an in-depth report on the viability of Niue a few days ago. The question that prompted it was “how does Niue stop everyone from leaving”? 

“The population decline on Niue, a lush coral atoll, has been steady and relentless. In the 1960s, there were more than 5,000 people living here; today, there are fewer than 1,600. Fifteen times as many Niueans, some 24,000, now live across the ocean in New Zealand, 1,500 miles (2,400km) away.”

The phenomenon of a Pacific Island facing population decline due to emigration is not unique to Niue: the Cook Islands’ population is declining by about 3% a year (a rate only second to Syria!)

“Tokelau and American Samoa are also losing significant numbers of people. Even on archipelagos such as Samoa and Tonga where the population is steady, people are abandoning the outer islands and moving to the main towns, where they can find better jobs, education and healthcare.”

However, Niue’s population is so small that it will not take much to totally depopulate the island.  What perhaps explains Niue’s decline (and the Cook Islands) is that Niue is self-governing but in free association with NZ and all Niueans are automatically NZ citizens. (The same is true of Cook Islanders.) Thus, it is easy for Niueans to move to NZ for better employment and educational opportunities. This is bringing many traditions to the brink of extinction:

“Niueans see New Zealand as a land filled with opportunity, says the Rev Falkland Liuvaie, 52, a Presbyterian minister who moved to its capital, Wellington, seven years ago.

He delivers a weekly sermon in both Niuean and English which he says gives many expats their only opportunity to listen to their language. He says for the first few years he gave his services only in Niuean, until he realised many people had difficulty understanding him.

The oral traditions that were once strong on the island are in danger of disappearing, he says. He remembers as a young boy going into his grandfather’s bedroom at 5am, before he went to work, to hear him tell stories about fishing and working in the bush.”

On the other hand, those that remain on the Island are helped in no small measure by New Zealand. 

“New Zealand has helped establish an NZ$50m (£26m) trust fund and gives annual aid that amounts to about NZ$11,000 per resident, helping fund the government work that accounts for most of the island’s jobs.”

However, this aid is slowly being reduced as the New Zealand government argues that its contributions to the trust fund and its investments in tourism allow the country to be more self-sufficient.  The Niue premier, Toke Talagi, is confident that Niue is not in terminal decline:

“‘I know that some people tend to look at us and say: “Well, you’re not viable,”’ he says. ‘You need to define exactly what you mean by that. We were viable before anybody else came here. We were independent before anybody else came here.’

‘Our task at the present moment is to use tourism to try to create opportunities so that people in New Zealand, or anywhere around the world that Niueans are living, will consider Niue again as a place for them to come back and live,’ he says.

Niue government figures indicate about 7,000 people visited the island last year, double the number from six years earlier. Air New Zealand this year scheduled extra flights during the southern hemisphere winter tourist season.”

While Niue may continue to be populated at current levels, the lure of New Zealand will still be strong for young people.  This is similar I think to what is happening within New Zealand itself as the cities (particularly Auckland) attract young people from rural areas. Of course, urbanisation is not confined to New Zealand, but is happening across the globe. The difference perhaps is that instead of seeing a slowly dying rural town, Niue is perhaps a slowly dying tropical island whose young people are moving across the South Pacific, not just a couple of hours down the road to the “big smoke”. 

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...