Heavy out-migration underlines economic conditions in Marshall Islands

9:20 am on 22 November 2022
A new report confirms the highest-ever rate of out-migration from the Marshall Islands to the United States over the past five years, motivated in part by many living in poverty in urban neighborhoods such as this one in Majuro Atoll, the capital

An urban neighbourhood in Majuro Atoll Photo: Wilmer Joel

The Marshall Islands had its highest-ever sustained out-migration over the past five years, according to a statistical report released earlier this week.

The Marshall Islands Fiscal Year 2021 Statistical Appendices, prepared by the Graduate School USA as part of an annual economic report on the country, shows that out-migration doubled in the five-year period from 2017-2021 compared to the 2007-2011 period, the last period for which there is out-migration data.

The out-migration data correlates directly to the steep decline in population between the 2011 and 2021 national censuses. Preliminary data from the latest census shows a 20 percent drop in the population in 10 years, in line with the latest out-migration statistics.

A stagnant economy with few new jobs in recent years, consistently poor results in public school education, and medical care needs of a population riddled with diabetes have combined to spur out-migration to the US. Marshall Islanders, like citizens of the other freely associated states in the north Pacific, enjoy visa-free travel to the United States.

Preliminary information from the 2021 national census shows that nearly half of all families in the Marshall Islands worry about not having enough food to eat, while one-in-three households said they sometimes "go without eating for a whole day."

Between 2017 and 2021, only 11 new jobs were added in the economy, as private sector employment declined while government hiring rose. In addition to employment and other data, the new report shows out-migration trends from 1990 to 2021 (with the exception of the period 2012-2016, where there is no available data).

Waves of out-migration

During the 1990s, the level of out-migration was fewer than 800 per year with the exception of 1997, when it spiked to 1,415. A new record was set in 2001, with out-migration jumping to 2,029. This spike occurred as the first Compact's funding agreement was coming to an end and the US and Marshall Islands had started negotiations for a second Compact funding arrangement with the US.

The unknowns of a period of renegotiations sparked worry among some Marshallese about access to the US, leading to the spike in out-migration in 2001. That was the only year until 2017 with over 2,000 people leaving in a year. The 2,148 who migrated in 2017 left the earlier record in the dust. The next year produced another 2,062 net out-migration. In 2019, 1,640 migrated.

The number dropped to 642 in 2020 as the Covid pandemic took over, making travel more difficult or, at certain points, impossible during 2020. But 2021 more than compensated for the slow out-migration numbers in 2020 with a new record set of 2,515 migrating.

The 2017-2021 period shows 9,007 people leaving Marshall Islands or an average of 1,801 per year, nearly double the highest previous five-year period - 1997-2001 - when an average of 1,023 left each year.

The 2021 preliminary census report shows that the population here dropped steeply in the 10 years since the 2011 census reported there were 53,158 people in the Marshall Islands. The new preliminary census data shows the population has declined by 20 percent compared to 2011, from 53,158 to 42,594. The out-migration data presented in the Graduate School USA's report supports the findings of the 2021 national census.

The responses from local residents to the 2021 national census questions suggest the widespread extent of poverty and hunger problems in the Marshall Islands. Of the 7,228 households in the country, the census found that 2,912 households said they "run out of food," and 2,822 reported they "skip a meal."

With over one-in-three households reporting they "go without eating for a whole day," it is unlikely that the pace of out-migration will decline any time soon.