Does Little Fiji Have a Migration Management Tool the U.S. Lacks? - Well, Yes

By David North on October 19, 2009

Does poverty-stricken, coup-beset Fiji -- an island nation with less than a million population -- have a technological migration management tool the United States lacks?

As a matter of fact, yes.

A New York Times page-one headline recently reminded us: "U.S. Can't Trace Foreign Visitors on Expired Visas". While we record the arrival of visa-holders, we have no way, currently, of knowing if they have actually left the country, or are still here, perhaps in violation of the terms of their entry document.

This is an old challenge in migration management. Back in the 1980s I was on my way home from Australia, where I had done some migration policy research for that government. I decided to spend a few days in Fiji and made an appointment to see the civil servant running Fiji's equivalent of the Home Office to talk with him about immigration matters.

A broad-shouldered, overseas-educated Fijian, he was eager to show off his nation's new computer-based technology that tracked people arriving and leaving his country. He asked me a couple of questions, turned to the computer on his desk, and found, lo and behold, that I had been recorded as arriving at Nandi, Fiji's principal international airport, and that I had not yet left the country. He was pleased because the system was then only a couple of weeks old.

I had visited Australian immigration people a few days earlier, and found that their computerized check-in and check-out system had been operating for a year or so. Great Britain also had a paper-based system tracking arrivals and departures at that time, but, as the Times noted, the U.S., some 20 years later, has not yet funded such a system.

I decided last week to see what had happened -– several coups later –- to Fiji's tracking system. I did a Google search and found that one can secure a great deal of statistical data from the Fijian system, and presumably their officials can learn quickly whether a specific visitor has or has not departed the nation.

Fiji, as I learned on that visit, had some perceived immigration data needs that are different from those of the United States. The island government was worried, for example, about the movements of both licensed and unlicensed missionaries. The established ones were not keen on new competitors.

More seriously, there was, and is, a continuing power struggle between the indigenous Fijians (who are Melanesians and who run the government and the military) and the somewhat less numerous descendants of the indentured Indian workers brought to the islands by the British in the 19th century. The Indians now run the economy. So the check-in and check-out system applies to residents identified by race as well as visitors.

Looking at these statistics one sees that there are some gaps; that full-year data are available for 2002, 2003, and 2007, but not for the years in between, perhaps because of coup-related interruptions.

If more departures than arrivals can be used as an emigration measurement, we see that in those three years there was a net exodus (among residents) of 3,055 Fijians and of 19,250 Indians. These numbers harmonize with the news headlines of the period, of Fijian generals running coups, and of Indians being fearful of them.