Micronesians migrate to the United States and its territories — especially Hawaii and Guam — because education, employment and medical care are scarce back home.

It’s also because they are allowed to do so under a treaty.

On Thursday, a former Peace Corps volunteer who now runs a nonprofit throughout the Federated States of Micronesia that works to help Micronesians, lamented how the migration impacts the homeless situation in Hawaii, where Micronesians are overrepresented when it comes to services.

The problem, said Neil Mellen, is flawed foreign aid, specifically the more than $200 million each year that goes from the U.S. Department of the Interior to Micronesia.

Neil Mellen shared his views on America's role in Micronesia downtown Thursday.
Neil Mellen shared his views on America’s role in Micronesia during an address in Honolulu on Thursday. Chad Blair/Civil Beat

“The DOI has dominated through the power of the purse,” said Mellen, who spoke in downtown Honolulu at a Grassroot Institute of Hawaii forum.

Mellen is highly critical of the DOI’s management in the three nations that are covered under the Compact of Free Association, a 1986 treaty that allows easy out-migration for COFA citizens in exchange for U.S. military control over the region.

The relationship dates back to the post-World War II era, when the U.S. was given “trust territory” control of the region by the United Nations. But Mellen argues that it should be the U.S. State Department — America’s “professional diplomatic corps” — taking the lead. After all, Palau, the Marshalls and Micronesia are sovereign, independent nations.

(There are U.S. embassies in each COFA nation — the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau)

Instead, under the DOI, Mellen said that Micronesia has become heavily reliant on U.S. aid for its gross domestic product and jobs. That, he said, is not a model for a sustainable nation.

The consequences include the fact that Hawaii spends about $160 million a year to accommodate its COFA population, which currently numbers at least 15,000. The money goes primarily to education, health and social services.

While data on how many homeless Micronesians are in the islands is not definitive, Mellen pointed to recent local studies showing about 15 percent of people in Hawaii receiving homeless services (such as living in a shelter) are Micronesian — a figure disproportionate to their total population here.

The irony that poor Micronesians would leave their homelands to live in one of the most expensive states in the nation is not lost on Mellen. Like many islanders, they are drawn to other islands.

But he also acknowledges that many Micronesians contribute significantly in their new environment, albeit sometimes by working at low-paying jobs.

Much of the population of Ebeye in the Marshalls is under 18 years of age, and the island is largely impoverished.
Much of the population of Ebeye in the Marshall Islands is under 18 years of age, and the island is largely impoverished. Mark Edward Harris/Civil Beat

In addition to replacing government aid with private-sector investment to produce sustainable jobs, Mellen stressed the need to improve education and health care in the region.

He’d also like to simplify the process of becoming an American citizen once a COFA citizen is in the U.S.

And if COFA residents living in the U.S. decide they can’t make it and want to go back home (the compact also calls for deportation in such circumstances), Mellen suggests helping them buy plane tickets.

America is not keeping its “side of the bargain” when it comes to Micronesia, he said. If America does not change its path (one he characterized as merely “keeping the lights on”), he warned, other powerful nations with Pacific ambitions — namely, China — are eager to jump in.

Some of Mellen’s ideas comport well with the philosophy of the Grassroot Institute Mellen, who is based in South Carolina, is currently a paid scholar with the conservative-libertarian-leaning institute.

He has also previously publicly clashed with the Department of the Interior, which turned him down for a grant proposal.

Mellen said the DOI either “misspoke or was in error” regarding the proposal, stating that the particular grant work in question “is not within our mission.” A DOI spokesperson, however, stands by the report.

Civil Beat published an entire series about Micronesia that included recommendations on how to improve conditions for both the citizens who have already relocated and those who remain there.

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