Rising suicide rate among islanders

‘...there seems to be little by way of policy initiatives to deal with rising poverty levels in large swathes of the population in which Pacific islanders are over-represented. It is understandable that many ambitious Pacific islanders feel trapped in the situation and young people find themselves saddled with greater frustration over their inability in finding gainful employment. The government’s (NZ) policies seem geared more for political lip service than delivering any real value to alleviate the lot of disadvantaged segments like Kiwi Pacific islanders’

New Zealand, more particularly Auckland, has been the dream destination for Polynesian Pacific islanders for more than two generations now. Historical ties between the Polynesian islands from well before they became independent states 30 to 50 years ago have established a deep connection between the people of Samoa, Tonga, Niue and the Cook Islands and New Zealand.

This has resulted in a steady migration of people from the islands, which, over two generations, has turned Auckland into the world’s largest city populated by Pacific islanders. Next month, as it always does in the month of March, Auckland will host the Pasifika Festival, the largest festival of its kind anywhere in the world, showcasing Pacific art, culture, live performances, Pacific islands products and services. As is the case every year, more than 200,000 people will visit the event over two days.

Though New Zealand still remains a popular destination for Pacific islanders to migrate and settle there, studies and statistics over long periods of time show that their experience over the past two generations at assimilating into the New Zealand mainstream has been less than satisfactory. Making the shift to New Zealand in search of a better life is a major driver in motivating islanders to leave their home islands states but the economic demands that life in New Zealand makes on them is something that remains daunting for Pacific islanders across generations.

After so many decades of constant migration to New Zealand, Pacific islanders continue to languish at the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder. They remain over-represented in indices reflecting the lowest wage levels, high unemployment, high crime —both petty and violent—and other human development indices like health, early childhood and education. In recent years, Pacific islanders find themselves over-represented in yet another dangerous trend that seems to be rising: suicides.

The number of Pacific islanders taking their own lives has shot up in New Zealand, according to figures released mid-last year. Of the 547 suicides reported nationwide over 12 months, 31 turned out to be persons of Pacific islands origins. That number is nine more than in the previous year. Most of these took place in Auckland, numbering 18. What is even more unfortunate is that more young people are now taking their lives. Two of the Auckland suicides included individuals below the age of 13. Youth suicides are estimated to have gone up 40 percent.

Sociologists are right in pointing to economic reasons for the travails of Pacific islanders in New Zealand. The country has always been a small, lightweight player in the global economy, greatly disadvantaged by its location and its extremely miniscule population that prevents it from developing any cost effective domestic economy. With the result, costs of everything are sky high. New Zealand finds itself at the high end of the spectrum in cost comparison of almost every commodity—from soft drinks and burgers to cars and houses.

The country is also unfortunately a correspondingly low wage economy at the lower end of the OECD (Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development) scale in several economic indicators. These realities, coupled with the global economic crisis and its continuing fallout, has kept New Zealand’s debt-ridden economy flat over the past several years. Unemployment has risen with correspondingly longer queues outside welfare offices. Reports of increasing child poverty have made newspaper headlines far more often in the past year than in recent years.

The unemployment rate would have been far higher if some 50,000 people didn’t leave its shores to work in Australia, which remains attractive to New Zealanders despite resident New Zealanders not being eligible for a number of benefits and facilities that are available to Australians resident in New Zealand. This has been a contentious issue, more to do with the incompetence of New Zealand’s successive governments to deal with the issue than any other factor.

Kiwis appear to be desperate enough to take this barb in their stride in the interests of a better wage and living standards in Australia. They have been making the flight over the ditch with great abandon. But most such Kiwis are skilled and semi-skilled.

Unfortunately, because of lower education levels among the Pacific islanders settled in New Zealand, fewer of them are able to take advantage of living and working in Australia than the average non-Pacific islands Kiwi.

Two successive National Party-led governments have further left Pacific islanders despondent. Leaders of Pacific islands origin, particularly of the rival Labour Party, do not see genuine empathy in the National Party leadership for Pacific islanders and their growing socio-economic problems. In fact, statistics show their lot has worsened since the National Party came to power.

The party’s approach to the Pacific—whether towards people of Pacific islands origin living in New Zealand or its dealings with Pacific islands governments and their leaders—has been quirky, even quixotic: a result of severe cost cutting measures that have seen a number of competent and experienced officials out of their jobs over the past couple of years, with the loss of valuable institutional knowledge in key government ministries.

As things stand in New Zealand today, matters can only get worse for people of Pacific islands origin living in the country. With the government seemingly in a state of paralysis about doing anything decisive about skyrocketing house prices and unaffordable rents, making Auckland one of the costliest cities in the world to buy or rent a property, high unemployment and continuing flight of competent Kiwis to Australia, there is little hope for economic revival anytime soon.

At the same time, there seems to be little by way of policy initiatives to deal with rising poverty levels in large swathes of the population, in which Pacific islanders are over-represented.

It is understandable that many ambitious Pacific islanders feel trapped in the situation and young people find themselves saddled with greater frustration over their inability in finding gainful employment.

The government’s policies seem geared more for political lip service than delivering any real value to alleviate the lot of disadvantaged segments like Kiwi Pacific islanders.

In the meantime, rising crime and suicide figures among this segment of the population should surprise nobody.


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