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Rotumans in the Fiji Islands

  • Profile

    The small, outlying formerly volcanic island of Rotuma was incorporated early into Fiji. Their home is the Polynesian outlier of Rotuma situated about 500 km north of the Fiji group, although increasing numbers are seeking education and employment on Fiji’s main islands. In previous Constitutions, they have been classified as ‘indigenous Fijians’ and usually accorded the same privileges, such as a reserved seat in parliament and affirmative action programmes.

    While for a long time there was relatively little Rotuman emigration to Fiji, from the early to mid-twentieth century their numbers increased significantly, with many moving to Ba Province, where a large gold mining industry is located. Though the 2007 census puts the number of islanders at just 2,002, more than 10,000 others are estimated to live across mainland Fiji.

    Historical context

    Rotumans are Polynesians with a distinct Polynesian language within the more Melanesian Fiji. Rotuma is a small island with few development prospects and is dependent on agriculture. Rotuman rights were protected in the 1990 Constitution and Rotumans were identified as ‘indigenous’ alongside the majority Melanesian population. However, there has been aspiration to calling for specific recognition. In the preamble of the 2013 constitution, the iTaukei and Rotumans are identified as indigenous peoples of Fiji.

    From the 1860s the island experienced increasing division as a result of the establishment of rival Wesleyan and Roman Catholic churches on the island, eventually leading to open conflict between converts in 1878. The chiefs of the island subsequently petitioned to be annexed by Great Britain and in 1881 was formally ceded as part of the Colony of Fiji – an administrative decision that was not founded on prior ties between Rotuma and Fiji.

    Rotuma has its own Senator, three representatives in the Great Council of Chiefs and greater autonomy than other political subdivisions in Fiji. Rotumans have been highly dependent on government employment in Fiji and many have also migrated overseas. In the wake of the 1987 coup there was some interest in gaining a separate independence, but this interest has subsequently declined. Though fully integrated into Fiji, it is nevertheless a dependency with a degree of autonomy and devolved local government.

    Current issues

    Governance and land rights in the Rotuman Islands have recently been under review following the tabling of the Rotuma Bill and the Rotuma Lands Bill in May 2015 in parliament. While the two pieces of legislation were reportedly drafted following requests from Rotuman Islanders, MPs were asked to postpone the passage of the bills until the community had had a chance to discuss them. They were subsequently presented again to parliament in April 2016.

    While the reform of the old legislation was intended to improve land access and regulation, particularly for women, the Council of Rotuma and the Fiji Rotuma Association rejected the bills, reportedly with the backing of a large majority of Rotuman Islanders, on the basis that they did not adequately reflect the views of the Rotuma community and undermined many established cultural, social and economic rights.

    Updated September 2017

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