It's a worldwide drift: people from small places go to larger places. But when a nation loses too many residents, its pride and identity are challenged

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Oceania mataiti, 13, often comes to Aitutaki airport to say goodbye to relatives taking the 225-km plane trip south to Rarotonga- or further afield. When he finishes school, this bright-eyed, skinny teen, with a quick smile and hearty handshake, will leave this tranquil island for "Raro," the country's largest island, then head overseas. "I want to be a pilot," says the boy, who also visits the airport to practice his English with tourists and to admire jets as they take off and land. Oceania wants to study in New Zealand-and, when he gets his wings, fly the planes that bring visitors to his homeland.

Since 1996, the resident population of the Cook Islands has shrunk by 23%, from 18,880 to 14,600; on some smaller atolls of the 15-island group, the departure rate is even higher. People leave for better wages, further education, an easier life-or because they want to be where the bright lights and the action are. Today, perhaps three times as many Cook Islanders live outside the country as in it. With tourism booming, partly as a result of last year's coup in Fiji, there's a shortage of labor; foreign workers are filling the gap, and many Cook Islanders see new migrants as a threat to their fortunes and national identity. "Migration-outward and inward-is the most serious problem facing the country," says one senior government official. "Our politicians don't have a clue what to do about it."

The Cook Islands economy ran out of puff in the mid 1990s. In a desperate effort to rein in spending, the government sacked 1,800 people from a 4,000-strong public service. The job losses were devastating to families in the outer islands, most of which were forced back to subsistence farming-or joined the flow of internal migrants that started in the 1950s. "While labor is scarce on Rarotonga, there are still many unemployed people in the remote islands," says Deputy Prime Minister Robert Woonton, who comes from Manahiki, 1,000 km north of Rarotonga. "When they transfer to the mainland to find work, the outer islands suffer even more," as their economies dwindle and schools and other services close down.

Mitiaro, 230 km northeast of Rarotonga, is known in the Cooks as the "friendly island." Its 250 people grow fragrant tiporo limes for the hotels in Rarotonga, and catch eels in the island's two large lakes. Next year, the sleepy island will host 300 athletes from the southern group of islands for the Cook Islands Manea Games. "Outward migration is a huge problem," says Nooroa Ingaua, a former school principal who is now Island Secretary for Mitiaro and is finding it hard to get suitable workers to prepare the stadium and accommodation for the games. In the past six years, she says, Mitiaro has lost more than one-third of its population. "People head for Rarotonga and wait for relatives in Australia and New Zealand to pay their fare there," she explains. "Then they set to work so they can pay the way for the next lot." Cultural ties and folklore are also lost, she says, as a generation becomes estranged from its island roots.

Because the Cook Islands is a self-governing country in "free association" with New Zealand, its people have an automatic right to New Zealand citizenship. And the Trans-Tasman agreement allows New Zealanders unrestricted entry to Australia. "Many young people leave the Cook Islands for the big overseas experience," says Wilkie Rasmussen, the country's High Commissioner in Wellington. Elmah McBirney, who works for the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation, was one of those young people. Born on Atiu island, she went to high school in Rarotonga and in the '60s migrated to New Zealand, where five of her children were born. Her son Aaron Enoka, a promising rugby player, last year moved to Hamilton, New Zealand, to pursue his sport. "His heart is in the Cook Islands," says McBirney. "But to improve his life he had to go overseas."

In conjunction with New Zealand, the Cook Islands is trying to find out why people are migrating-and why they are not returning home. According to Rasmussen, while every journey has its own story, there are some common themes: people go overseas to study (those on scholarships are obliged to return); play sport or pursue a profession; build their savings to buy a property or business back home; follow their extended families; or seek the fellowship and sense of solidarity that, for people from the smallest islands, is now available only in large émigré communities. "Cook Islanders earn more money overseas than in the Cook Islands," says Rasmussen. "Young people are not returning because they see more of a future in New Zealand and Australia. Many want professional qualifications, stable and secure jobs, and income. The Cook Islands do not offer such things."

The downside of emigration, says Rasmussen, is that skilled people are caught in the outflow. Tim Boyd, a commercial pilot who married a Cook Islander, is part of that drift. After qualifying in his native New Zealand, Boyd got a job flying the island routes with Air Rarotonga. But last year he moved his family to Hong Kong where he works for Dragonair. "I got as far as I could in Rarotonga," he says, "and I was looking to extend my experience and further my career." But Boyd and his family plan to return home at least twice a year to stay in touch with family and friends. "Migration is the best and worst thing about the Cook Islands," says Teina Bishop, an Opposition M.P. from Aitutaki. "Yes, there is a brain drain. But there is also the release of a safety valve. We couldn't support the number of Cook Islanders who now live overseas-and they pump a lot of money back into the country to support parents and children."

Taea Parima is the principal of Rarotonga's Takitumu-Matavera primary school. After two decades of teaching, he has concluded that the Cook Islands' young people lack a good work ethic. "People don't have to work hard to live comfortably here," he says. "This is the Pacific." Parima knows of many young people who have migrated to Australia and New Zealand and fallen into idleness. "They know the game," he says. "The day after you arrive in New Zealand you're on the dole." Skilled or unskilled, says Ron Crocombe, a retired professor of Pacific Studies who lives in Rarotonga, "if you are lazy, you can milk the welfare system in Australia and New Zealand. Here, you can't."

There are cultural reasons for some Cook Islanders' lack of drive. As in much of the Pacific, nepotism is pervasive. "There is a mindset within Cook Islanders that government patronage of party supporters is entrenched," says High Commissioner Rasmussen. Parima says that can lead to complacency-or resignation. "School kids on Rarotonga can drop out and walk straight into a job," he says. "In the Cook Islands, it's not what you know, but who you know. It just gives young people more reasons not to do well or to leave." Deputy P.M. Woonton concedes that "there is some degree of nepotism," but says it is declining. "It's a small country, so it's not unusual to find the son or daughter of a minister working in another department," he says. "But as governments have cut the public service by more than half, it's become a private-sector economy."

By "private sector," Woonton means tourism, which accounts for half the country's income. A lack of skilled hospitality workers has led the government to relax immigration restrictions, letting in many more workers from Indonesia, the Philippines and Fiji. Nineteen-year-old Iqbal was trained to work in kitchens at a hotel outside Nadi. After joining relatives in Rarotonga, he's found a job in one of the island's better hotels. "I like working here," he says. "It's much more pleasant than in the big resorts in Fiji." But this ethnic Indian is not the face of tourism that many Cook Islanders want to project. "Our competitive advantage as a tourist destination is the showcasing of Polynesian culture," says Ewan Smith, managing director of Air Rarotonga. "When tourists come here, they want to meet Cook Islanders."

Some also fear that single migrants from relatively poor countries are easy game for ruthless employers. "Employers have leverage over immigrants," says Ron Crocombe. "They can say, If you don't do this, I'll have you kicked out." That leverage erodes wages and conditions and marginalizes the locals, says Crocombe. "Maintaining over-employment and bringing people in from Indonesia, the Philippines and Fiji will lead us to the sorts of ethnic problems that our neighbors are facing. A moderate ethnic mix is fine, but there's a level at which societies react. It is not a nice thing to have riots, as in the United Kingdom." The Cook Islands are sowing the seeds of division, Crocombe says. "The government is opening the doors too wide and too fast." Deputy P.M. Woonton accepts that there's a risk of social unrest, but says the government will soon begin cutting back on work permits.

Cook Islanders are in broad agreement that tourism development must not leave locals behind-or let too many outsiders in. Aitutaki M.P. Bishop, whose family company runs lagoon cruises, believes developers should undertake to staff new resorts with locals: "Development should go hand in hand with developing the skills of our people." High Commissioner Rasmussen says locals should be trained to New Zealand and Australian standards: "Cook Islanders in the tourism industry do not want to be cleaners all the time."

Before islanders can excel, they need good basic education. Principals and bureaucrats bewail low schooling standards: most teachers do not have university qualifications and many speak English poorly. "Parents do not place a high priority on education," says Vaopaaki Tearetoa, deputy principal of Aitutaki's Araura College. "There's a very relaxed attitude to schooling." Parima notes that parents often don't allow their older children time off from household chores to study at senior level. Per capita, the country spends only one-quarter of what Australia and New Zealand do on education and there's a huge gap between leaving school and gaining marketable skills.

Air Rarotonga's Smith believes the country needs to embrace a new vision of itself. He's challenging politicians to get behind education and training so the nation produces regional citizens, rather than people who end up on the bottom of the social heap overseas. "The ebb and flow of migration is something we should accept as a characteristic of our region and our citizens," he says. "We should be ensuring that our people are equipped with the education and life skills they need to be significant contributors to whichever community they choose to live in. Those who stay will go on to develop the nation."

The government is keen to spread the word that opportunities abound in the Cooks; it plans roadshows in New Zealand to get people to come home. "The government's push to bring people back is political window dressing," says Crocombe. A taskforce charged with finding solutions to migration has been "useless" according to Rasmussen. He says a better approach would be to examine whether the government has chosen the right model for development and privatization so that all citizens have a fair opportunity. Deputy P.M. Woonton is excited about the prospect of exploiting the country's vast marine resources. "When people hear about tourism, the pearl industry and fishing, they'll want to be stakeholders in the boom," he says. "It will be like a goldrush-if there's money to be made here, then people will go for it." Spreading the word of easy riches is child's play. Long-term prosperity requires not only childlike enthusiasm, but clean hands and bright minds; like junior flyer Oceania, with both feet on the ground and eyes on the sky.