Last Updated: Thursday, 08 October 2015, 08:45 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Tonga : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Tonga : Overview, 2007, available at: [accessed 8 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 Kingdom of Tonga consists of four groups of low-lying islands, thirty-six of which are inhabited.


Main languages: Tongan, English

Main religions: Christianity (Free Wesleyan, Roman Catholicism, Mormon and Tokakailo)

Tongans are Polynesians, and the population is relatively homogeneous.


Unusually in the Pacific, Tonga was never a colony though its traditional social structure was much influenced by Britain in the nineteenth century, resulting in a formal land tenure system, a hereditary monarchy and the dominance of Methodism. In recent years there has been tension between proponents of democracy and those who prefer the status quo, where only a third of members of parliament are democratically elected, with the rest being nobles or appointees of the king. In 1996 two journalists and a member of parliament were jailed for twenty-six days for 'contempt of parliament' and were declared 'prisoners of conscience' by Amnesty International, and there have many demonstrations and subsequent arrests, including the jailing of the leader of the Pro-Democracy Movement, Akilisi Pohiva. In 2003 a Newspaper Act was introduced to limit press freedom, resulting in New Zealand threatening to review is relationship with Tonga. The Tonga Times, published in New Zealand, has been repeatedly confiscated by the government. During the 1990s the People's Party, formed in 1994 to press for greater democracy, gradually acquired more parliamentary seats, and in 2006 the first commoner, Dr Feleti Sevele, was appointed Prime Minister.


Tonga remains a constitutional monarchy and the king exercises considerable influence; nobles also have enormous political and economic power and Tonga is probably the most stratified contemporary Polynesian society. Cabinet ministers are appointed for life by the King. King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV died in September 2006, after a 41year rule. The accession to the throne of the new monarch, King Siaosi (George) Tupou V, was initially greeted with optimism after the King announced he would sell off his business interests and introduce constitutional reforms. But a major riot on 16 November 2006 following a peaceful pro-democracy rally destroyed much of the central business district of the capital Nuku'alofa.

The Tongan economy is predominantly agricultural but remittances from Tongans overseas are the most important element of the national economy, making up over 31 per cent of GDP (2005). Because of substantial emigration, so that half of all Tongans live overseas, the population has remained more or less stable over the past two decades. However high levels of unemployment and rising public expenditure are concerns.

Immigration is discouraged and the Tongan-born children of aliens are required to leave the country at the age of 21. However, passports have been sold to aliens, and a number of these, especially from Hong Kong and Taiwan, have settled in Tonga and established businesses there. Migrant populations have few political rights, and migrants, including passport holders, are unwelcome.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

Chinese migrants represent a small but growing population. They have become prominent in small business and their commercial role is resented. In 2000 there were strong protests in the capital, Nuku'alofa, over their presence and the Tonga Human Rights and Democracy Movement requested the government to cease giving work permits and selling passports to foreign business people. During rioting in November 2006, which began with attacks on business interests of the King and Prime Minister, Chinese trade stores were also targeted by arsonists and looters.

Although Tonga signed the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1972, the legislation has not been enacted in domestic law, and officials have extensive rights over non-citizens (for example, under the Immigration Act, the right to marriage between a Tongan and a non-Tongan is conditional upon the written consent of the Principal Immigration Officer). Under CERD, Tonga has placed reservations on Article 4 (which require action to legislate against racial discrimination and race hatred) and like Fiji, Tonga has placed a reservation on Article 5 (dv) protecting the rights of indigenous landowners. Article 5 (d) (iv) of the CERD Convention affirms the 'right to marriage and choice of spouse'.

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