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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

From Assimilation to Assimilnations

For I-Kiribati, migration, stemming from global social and environmental disparities, often reinforces rather than conflicts with the social hierarchy they encounter as second-class migrant permanent residents and/or citizens. Many Pacific Islanders, including I-Kiribati, engage in remittance economies with their home islands, positioning themselves on the lower rungs of the economic ladder in their new environments.

In a similar vein, Tongan emigrants frequently cite the desire to "help the family" as a primary motivation for their migration, as noted by Cowling (2002:106). This sentiment reflects the deep-rooted cultural value of familial support and underscores the economic and social dynamics at play in migration decisions among Pacific Islanders.

Many Pacific nations operate under MIRAB economies, where remittances frequently contribute more than half of the nation’s gross domestic product. In Kiribati, for instance, official figures show that 9.9% of the gross domestic product in 2006 was derived from remittances (Ratha, 2008). 

Participating in a remittance economy socially binds individuals to their home islands. It serves as an investment for their eventual return while fulfilling kinship obligations. For families, maintaining ties with overseas relatives ensures socio-economic stability and influence in community affairs.

International migration has thus become a substitute for sustainable development rather than a short-term support for increasing the effectiveness of development efforts (Connell, 1987: 375-404). 

The exploration of ethnic, cultural, and individual identities among Pacific Island migrants has garnered more attention in New Zealand compared to the United States, primarily due to their higher visibility in the former (Cook, 2001). In contrast, Pacific Islander immigrants constituted only about 1.5% of the United States' population of 275 million (Marshall, 2004). 

Previous studies on diaspora communities (Pau’u, 1994; Small, 1997; Spickard, 2002; Connell, 2004; Marshall, 2004) have highlighted how social and environmental changes influence individuals and material culture, leading to the emergence of a compromised cultural identity.

In a compromised culture, traditions are not “lost” to Westernization or commoditization; instead, traditions are transformed by the new social conditions in which they exist (Small, 1997:36).

In this context, cultural transformation underscores the interconnectedness of Pacific Island communities, suggesting that no Island exists in isolation (Marshall, 2004). Place, space, and identity remain intricately linked to the homeland, fostering a continuous sense of return among Pacific people, whether physically or mentally.

In the introductory essay of his edited volume "Pacific Diaspora: Island Peoples in the United States and Across the Pacific," Paul Spickard outlines three migration models. These include the Immigrant Assimilation and the Pan Ethnicity models, which depict migration as a unidirectional flow from point A to point B. Classic examples of this model include early migrations to the United States, where European migrants endured months of travel, fleeing impoverished living conditions in pursuit of prosperity and contentment in their new environments.

This model emphasizes first-generation enthusiasm for the United States and successive generations' obliterating their ancestral identities and taking on an undifferentiated American identity (Spickard, 2002:10).  

The alternative to the assimilation model is the transnational or Diaspora model, which views migration as a cyclical process. Transnationalism, as defined by Vertovec (1997), encompasses the multitude of ties and interactions that link individuals or institutions across the borders of nation-states. Consequently, transnational migration studies emphasize the interconnectedness between the sending and receiving regions, comparing the experiences of migrating individuals across various locations: I-Kiribati in Kiribati, New Zealand, Fiji, and the United States (Spickard, 2002). Both models enable people to transcend borders, particularly in today's age of internet technologies and reduced travel costs, leading to an increasing number of individuals opting for the second migration model.

I-Kiribati, along with Pacific Islanders more broadly, hold concepts of family, responsibility, and reciprocity that extend far beyond those found in Western settings. Marcel Mauss's examination of gift exchange in Polynesia (1924) illustrates that acts of giving and receiving gifts are not merely gestures but carry significant weight, akin to acts of peace and war. Social relationships are intricately woven into these exchanges, with bonds maintained, enhanced, diminished, or even severed based on how gifts are given, accepted, or declined.

Similarly, in contemporary Kiribati society, the practice of bubutii holds great significance in conferring or tarnishing relationships. Traditionally, such acts of gift exchange were confined to within the family, with considerable shame and social pressure compelling individuals to fulfill their bubutiii obligations (Tungavalu, 1975). Today, the intensity of bubutii is measured by the depth of relationships in which it is expressed.

Research on I-Kiribati migrants has revealed that familial obligations persist and, in some cases, intensify with geographic separation. Rather than being confined to local exchanges, transnational connections facilitate remittances to support those left behind, thereby fostering opportunities for chain migration and promoting further economic advancement.

Chain migration plays a pivotal role in shaping residential and occupational concentrations among migrant populations. As individuals from the same origin continue to migrate to specific destinations, they establish durable and visible communities, particularly within certain industries or workplaces (Macpherson, 1999). This phenomenon contributes to the emergence of diaspora populations, further solidifying migrant communities.

The President of Kiribati recognizes the significance of cultural practices such as the bubutii and other culturally bounded responsibilities in facilitating future chain migration out of Kiribati. These practices serve as essential bonds that not only preserve cultural heritage but also foster ongoing connections among diaspora members, encouraging continued migration and community formation in new locations.

In response to the potential designation of asylum seekers as climate refugees, he expresses reluctance, stating, “I hesitate to label our people as refugees: we would equip them, enabling them to lead fulfilling lives and make meaningful contributions to whichever country they decide to settle in” (Blair & Beck, 2008:2). This underscores the resilience and prominence of burgeoning I-Kiribati diaspora communities.

The fusion of familial ties and I-Kiribati identity, coupled with technological advancements in recent years, has facilitated the emergence of a novel migration trend among the I-Kiribati community. Leveraging social networking platforms like MSN, Bebo, Hi5, KOC, Facebook, Tagged, and MySpace, a virtual space has evolved, fostering significant and frequent communication among I-Kiribati expatriates, effectively collapsing geographical barriers into a singular virtual realm. Beyond simply sharing photos, videos, anecdotes, and updates via these platforms, communication tools such as MSN Messenger, Skype, and Google Chat have enabled real-time conversations and video calls across nations, empowering I-Kiribati individuals from Germany to connect with their counterparts in the United States, Taiwan, Fiji, or any other location seamlessly. 

On August 22, 2006, Kiribati’s national telecom service, TSKL, introduced a groundbreaking broadband wireless service on the main island of Tarawa, aptly named The Coconut Wireless. This initiative opened virtual gateways connecting Kiribati to the larger global community, allowing direct daily communication between families and friends, often for the first time. I contend that these technological strides have ushered in fresh avenues for communication, interaction, and migration among points A, B, and C within a virtual community. The newfound freedom to traverse borders has far-reaching implications for all participants. The act of reconnecting with relatives and friends challenges both the assimilation and traditional transnational models of migration, as virtual participants seamlessly oscillate between their points of origin and other diaspora hubs, even if they have never physically set foot in these locations.

In 2000, an I-Kiribati citizen and her Swiss husband relocated to his homeland following their marriage. Fast forward to the summer of 2008, and I encountered this couple residing in central New Zealand. Their decision to migrate wasn't solely driven by economic prospects, as ample opportunities existed in their former abode. Rather, they sought out a sense of community. At that time, while 186 I-Kiribati were residing in the United States, a mere six were found in Switzerland. 

The wife's longing to be closer to a larger I-Kiribati community, coupled with the husband's openness to migration, underscores a trend I anticipate will gain momentum. As more I-Kiribati seek refuge from their island homes due to rising sea levels and pursue broader opportunities in diverse nations, the urge to maintain familial connections will fuel further migration to various migrant-receiving countries.



As Kiribati grapples with the absence of a concrete plan for climate change-induced migration, its citizens are leveraging various migration schemes, resulting in dispersed families settling in different countries. Thanks to internet technologies, instant visual virtual communication has become the norm among these scattered individuals. Communication platforms offer both one-on-one and group access, facilitating reunions between family members residing in Australia, New Zealand, Kiribati, and the United States through virtual video communication. 

In many cases, these communication channels prompt the exchange of laptops, netbooks, and iPads instead of traditional remittances like cash and clothing. This trend serves to strengthen and perpetuate connections between the homeland and migrant populations in a novel virtual space. The utilization of such technology is poised to increase further as Kiribati faces escalating environmental challenges, heightening the urgency of addressing its precarious physical location.

The future of Kiribati hangs precariously in uncertainty, with the specter of a worst-case scenario looming large—a scenario where the very existence of a habitable homeland for the I-Kiribati people is called into question. Like their Pacific counterparts, the I-Kiribati are seasoned voyagers, possessing remarkable abilities to traverse oceans and resettle in foreign lands. 

Yet, amidst this uncertainty, profound questions arise regarding national sovereignty. Should the nation cease to exist, whether due to mass emigration or the physical demise of the land, what becomes of the identity of the migrants? Would they still be considered I-Kiribati in the absence of Kiribati itself? Moreover, can we envision a global community that embodies a transnational identity without a physical homeland at its center? Would cultural features persist solely through assimilation, bereft of a territorial anchor?

Regrettably, these questions carry weighty implications for Kiribati and other atoll nations worldwide. The possibility of such dire scenarios exacts a toll no nation is prepared to bear. Yet, nations like the Maldives, Marshall Islands, Tokelau, Tuvalu, and Kiribati may find themselves compelled to confront this existential reckoning.

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