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Banabans in the Fiji Islands

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    Banabans are Micronesians with a language that is very similar to the Gilbertese language of Kiribati.

    The Banaban population was moved from the island of Banaba (Ocean Island), then in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands and now in Kiribati, to Rabi in eastern Fiji in 1942 when it was being mined by the British Phosphate Commission. Between 1900 and 1979 almost all of Ocean Island’s surface was removed. Many Banabans remain on the island of Rabi (Vanua Levu), though others have migrated to Suva and elsewhere. A small number have returned to Banaba, but it is administered by the Rabi Island Council in Fiji (though the islands are part of Kiribati’s territory). Attempts to revive a traditional economy in Banaba have largely failed, and most Banabans have accepted their future in Fiji.

    Historical context

    Banaba was annexed in 1900 by the British and subsequently exploited by the British Phosphate Company who bought the island on a 999-year lease. Japanese forces occupied Banaba between 1942 and 1945, subjecting residents to a brutal rule that saw many die from starvation or torture. After the Second World War, however, the British Phosphate Commission resumed mining on the island and the colonial government, instead of repatriating Banaba’s residents, resettled them on Rabi Island.

    After coming to Rabi, Banabans fought a long battle for compensation against the UK because of the damage to their home island and their displacement. Though they became Fijian citizens, they have experienced some political problems and there have been disputes over the management of Rabi affairs. There is no overt discrimination against Banabans in Fiji.

    Banabans can vote in Fiji and also in Kiribati, and have a member of parliament in Kiribati; they have sought independence for Banaba, to prevent it being totally absorbed into Kiribati, though most wish to remain in Fiji. The 1987 coup made Banabans more aware of possible limitations to their future in Fiji and they have increasingly tended to accept the provisions made for them by Kiribati. However, Banabans have also been frustrated with their access to compensation payments administered by the government of Kiribati and in 2006 their representative in the Kiribati parliament called for Banaba to secede and join Fiji.

    Current issues

    Under the 1970 Fiji Constitution and early legislation, Banabans and Melanesians were classified as Fijians under the communal voting system, while the small Tuvaluan population was registered under the heading of ‘General voters’. However, under the 1990 Constitution, all were reclassified as ‘General voters’ (together with Europeans, Chinese and others) and are restricted from accessing affirmative action programmes for indigenous Fijians and Rotumans. During the constitutional review that led to the 1997 Constitutional Amendment Act, Rabi Islanders sought to redefine their status under Fijian law and remain concerned that they may again lose access to government affirmative action programmes. A positive step, however, was the inclusion in the 2013 Constitution of provisions that affirms the rights and full protection of iTaukei, Rotumans and Banabans to their communal lands.

    Updated December 2017

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