Last Updated: Tuesday, 06 October 2015, 08:57 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Northern Mariana Islands : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Northern Mariana Islands : Overview, 2007, available at: [accessed 7 October 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


The Northern Marianas are a chain of mainly volcanic islands in the north and limestone islands in the south between Guam and the Philippines. They are prone to cyclones and some islands experience volcanic eruptions.


Main languages: Chamorro, English, Filipino

Main religions: Christianity (mainly Roman Catholicism)

Minority groups include Filipinos, Chinese and Micronesians

Almost the whole population (90 per cent) of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) live on Saipan. The indigenous population are Chamorros (as in neighbouring Guam), but in the nineteenth century there was a substantial immigration of Carolinians (mainly from what are now the outer islands of Yap and Chuuk, Federated States of Micronesia).


In 1947 the islands became part of the US strategic Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI), but in 1975, 78 per cent of the population voted to become a Commonwealth of the United States.

From the 1960s there was considerable emigration of Filipinos, other Asians and Micronesians into the Marianas, and in the 1980s and 1990s an even more substantial migration of Chinese to work in the textile industry. At its peak in the mid-2000s some 17,500 Chinese, alongside some Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis, were employed in the industry. The collapse of the industry after 2005, with more effective American regulation of labour standards, has led to substantial return migration.

The economy is heavily dependent on United States support, especially after the virtual disappearance of the textile industry, with new trading regulations, and the present decline of the tourist industry.

As with other US possessions in the northern Pacific, CNMI has some links to the US military network in Micronesia, hosting intelligence and communications bases on Tinian and Rota and a bombing range at Farallon de Medinilla. Saipan became a forward military base in the 2000s.


The Northern Marianas has a bicameral legislature. Only 39 per cent of the population was born in the Northern Marianas, and a majority of the population are of Asian origin. Foreign migrant workers cannot usually become permanent residents (much less citizens) so the citizen minority dominate business and political life and tightly regulate migration.

In almost every context the Chamorros and Carolinians are indistinguishable, though the government has a 'special assistant' on Carolinian affairs.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

In the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, garment companies have brought in women from Asia as guestworkers, leading to breaches of labour laws and ILO conventions on the rights of migrant workers.

There was considerable discrimination against migrant workers, especially Chinese, on Saipan, in the absence of a minimum age and trade unions, though some factory owners have been prosecuted. In 2002 seven large companies had to pay US$11 million in compensation. The demise of the textile industry, and the return migration of most such workers, has effectively ended that era. Even so in 2004 the minimum wage was 40% that of the United States and some workers are discriminated against.

Aircraft from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam use the Northern Mariana Islands bombing range in Farallon de Medinilla, a 206-acre island about 45 miles north of Saipan, as the military's only live-fire training location in the western Pacific, in breach of UN resolutions on demilitarisation of commonwealth and territorial entities.

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