Last Updated: Monday, 05 October 2015, 08:59 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Samoa : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Samoa : Overview, 2007, available at: [accessed 6 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.


Samoa (formerly Western Samoa until 1997) is one of the larger Polynesian states in land area and population. It mainly consists of two large, high volcanic islands, Upolu and Savaii, both of which are prone to cyclones.


Main languages: Samoan, English

Main religions: Christianity

Minority groups include Niueans and Tokelauans.

Samoans are Polynesian and there are few other distinct ethnic groups, though some elite Samoans have part Chinese or European (especially German) ancestry. Samoa has retained strong elements of fa'a Samoa (the Samoan traditional culture) in its constitution and political structure, and society is hierarchical.

Most of the descendants of the Chinese, Melanesian and Polynesian migrant groups live in the capital city, Apia, and have been absorbed into the Samoan social system, although few have access to land.


Samoa was briefly a German colony until the First World War and was the first Pacific island state to experience significant labour immigration, to German plantations established in the second half of the nineteenth century. Most migrants were Chinese and Melanesians. There has also been historical migration from Tokelau, Niue and other Polynesian states. Samoa was the first Pacific island state to gain independence (from New Zealand) in 1962.

The economy is based on agriculture and fishing, but like its neighbour Tonga, Samoa has become heavily dependent on aid and remittances. Some half of all Samoans live overseas, mainly in American Samoa, the United States and New Zealand. In March 2003 there were large protest marches in both Samoa and New Zealand demanding the repeal of the 1982 New Zealand laws which ended Samoans' automatic rights to New Zealand citizenship. This was ignored and the quota system for migration to New Zealand remains in place.


For nearly three decades after independence, the national legislature was only elected by traditional chiefs (matai) and only matai are able to stand for election to the unicameral 49-seat Fono (parliament). Universal suffrage was not introduced until 1990, when women got the vote for the first time, but the restriction still remains that only matai can present as candidates. Since 1982 the Human Rights Protection Party has formed the government. There is a hereditary chief of state, who is one of the two paramount chiefs. Christian churches, as elsewhere in Polynesia, also exercise enormous authority. Village meetings have increasingly exercised authority under the 1990 Village Fono Act.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

There was sporadic migration from the nearby atolls of Tokelau in the first half of the twentieth century, but numbers of migrants declined after the 1960s because of problems of access to scarce employment, and the ease of migration from Tokelau to New Zealand. Other than a very small number of Chinese there are no distinct ethnic groups.

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