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Between a Rock and a Far Place

The tiny island of Niue in the South Pacific, also known as the Rock of Polynesia, is one of the most remote places on earth. It can only be accessed by plane, on a three and a half hour flight from Auckland which flies once or twice a week, or by private yacht. Although Niue has a Prime Minister, a parliament and a flag, the country remains in free association with New Zealand after choosing self-government, rather than full independence, in a 1974 referendum. Technically executive power lies with Queen Elizabeth II in her role as Queen of New Zealand and her Governor General in New Zealand. In practice, Niue's Prime Minister and his minister's run the territory's affairs. Nieuans hold New Zealand passports and since there are hardly any jobs on the island, some 20,000 Niueans (or 90-95%) of the population have emigrated to New Zealand. Today, Niue is one of the least populous countries on the planet. With less than 1,500 permanent residents it is only slightly busier than Tokelau, also a New Zealand dependency, and Vatican City. The population is shrinking every year, with the young generation generally departing to study in New Zealand and others heading further south in search of gainful employment. To the first-time visitor, therefore, Niue can seem like a ghost-country. Abandoned homes litter the landscape and can be found in each of the island's 14 villages. Few cars and motorcycle occasionally trundle along the island's few paved roads and Alofi, the capital, lies mainly deserted, especially on Sundays.

Desperate to halt the decline in population, the government invited migrants from Tuvalu, another diminutive Pacific island nation of some 10,000 people perched on nine overcrowded and low lying islands measuring no more than 26 square kilometres. Some 100 Tuvaluans heeded the call in the early 2000s and were settled in Vaiea village in the island's south.

The scheme hasn't quite worked as intended, however, since many Tuvaluans took advantage of being granted residency permits for New Zealand and moved further South. The ones who have stayed, who see themselves as the first 'climate change refugees', however, enjoy their new life and the relative abundance of space and safety from rising sea levels.

Once a year, sleepy Niue springs to life when relatives and friends who have settled in New Zealand, return 'home' for Christmas and New Year's celebrations. Visitors also take the opportunity to pay their respects at the graves of ancestors who lie buried on the island. Locals put on feasts for the visiting relations by cooking specialities such as giant coconut crab and other seafood delicacies but also offer the local staple source of protein - roasted bat. Bat hunting is a popular pastime for local men and boys who shoot the nocturnal creatures and bring them home to be wrapped in foil or a leaf to be cooked on hot stones.

After New Year the island empties of festive visitors again and returns to its slow tranquility. Those Niueans who have chosen to remain on the island are proud of their country. As 47-year-old John Loae, who works in the local fishing industry, puts it: 'We don't have any problems here. We've got land to work, we have the sea to fish. We don't have wards, we don't pay for anything other than electricity and phone bills. Everything else is free - we live like in paradise.'
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