By Giff Johnson
The governor of Guam has asked the United States federal government to enforce screening measures to slow the flow of islanders from the freely associated states coming to Guam during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Responding to Guam Governor Lou Leon Guerrero's action, Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Casten Nemra urged a collaborative effort among US-affiliated islands to contain the widening coronavirus problem in the region.
Mr Nemra also expressed concern about the Guam request to have US federal authorities institute screening of people from the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and Palau entering Guam under the visa-free provisions of the Compact of Free Association.
These three nations are known as the freely associated states (FAS).
Ms Guerrero sent a letter to US Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the US Covid-19 Task Force, on 6 April asking "the Covid-19 Task Force (to) provide guidance to the Departments of State, Homeland Security and Interior to intervene on this matter of continuing travel from the FAS to Guam."
She pointed out the US government under the Compact of Free Association "has the authority to institute screening measures to ensure that allowable migration is consistent with the Compacts of Free Association." She added that she supported and encouraged this action.
The Compacts with the three island nations allow the US to institute a "means test" on arriving islanders. But since the Compact first went into force in 1986, this provision has never been administered. Large populations of people from the FAS live in the mainland US, Hawaii and Guam.
The Guam governor said the two main reasons for FAS citizens migrating to Guam - education and jobs - currently don't exist because of the shut down of Guam due to Covid-19 spread. Schools are closed and only essential businesses are operating on Guam.
"Our economy is currently in a downturn," she said, adding "we no longer have tourists visiting, hotels have closed along with other supporting small businesses and because of this there are no job openings."
Guam has reported 137 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and five deaths. There have not yet been any confirmed Covid-19 cases in Palau, the FSM or the Marshall Islands.
The Governor said the two reasons for the Compact's free migration provisions currently do not exist on Guam.
Ms Guerrero also expressed concern the FAS had banned travel to their islands by citizens living outside, yet continued to allow migration from their countries to the US under the migration provisions of the Compacts.
"This is very concerning to Guam."
The FSM, however, in addition to banning inbound arrivals by air had also banned all out-bound travel by its citizens except for people needing medical treatment or citizens who normally reside in another country.
The Marshall Islands has since February banned travel by government workers and discouraged international travel by citizens and residents.
Guam's governor insisted the territory didn't have the resources "to quarantine FAS citizens who become stranded on Guam because they are not able to return to their country, nor can we quarantine those FAS citizens who are allowed to leave their country utilizing the migration provisions of the Compacts."
Foreign Minister Nemra said the governor's request to institute screening "is not a good consideration." He said the Marshall Islands "consistently advised its residents not to travel abroad and later had to institute a travel restriction for all inbound passengers as the virus began to persistently spread in the region."
Mr Nemra said he was communicating with Guam leaders and also contacted relevant officials within the US government on the concern raised by the Government of Guam.
"The Marshall Islands commends the effort of Guam to contain Covid-19," he said.
"These islands are facing a global pandemic that require collaboration of all of our jurisdictions in the Micronesian region. The Marshall Islands is always open to dialogue to find feasible solutions."
With respect to addressing Guam's immigration concern, "the Marshall Islands shall work closely with the US given our unique and special bi-lateral relationship," said Mr Nemra.