Capitalizing on the opportunities of the 21st century will require strong people-to-people ties between the US and the Pacific Island countries. The Biden administration’s Pacific Partnership Strategy, in recognition of the importance building strong people-to-people links announced adding three new embassies, bringing the total to nine. Will the expanded embassies succeed in expanding people-to-people links? What else needs to be done?
Embassies and consulates are located throughout the Pacific Island region. Not all Pacific Island countries have embassies or consulates. Tuvalu and Nauru do not have a US embassy or consulate. The Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, and Fiji all host US embassies. Samoa has an embassy, but the ambassador in Wellington is accredited to Apia. Newer embassies, like Solomon Islands and Tonga do not currently have an ambassador in residence. These small diplomatic outposts offer limited services, often leaving some consular services to larger embassies.
The variable services provided by small embassies and consulates impacts people to people ties. People of the region most commonly apply for US non-immigrant visas for tourism, business or education. The non-immigrant visa process for the majority of Pacific Island countries requires filling out an application and an in-person interview which includes biometrics screening. Only PNG and Fiji process non-immigrant visas for the South Pacific islands. Pacific Islanders living outside PNG and Fiji must travel, by air or boat, to Port Moresby or Suva. Travel and accommodation costs are added to the $185 visa application fee. The total visa cost can be quite significant especially in a country like the Solomon Islands where the 2022 GNI per capita is US$2,220.
Recently a young trainee doctor working at the National Referral Hospital in Solomon Islands, won a medical training fellowship in the US. While his cost of travel and stay while in the US is covered he must spend 10% of his annual surgical trainee income on a flight from Honiara, Solomon Islands to Port Moresby, a 3 night stay there due to flight schedules and miss his training for 4 days in addition to paying his visa application fee. Waivers are not an option. No Pacific Island country, other than the COFA states, Australia and New Zealand, are part of the US Visa Waiver Program.
There are 28 classes of non-immigrant US visas. The first challenge for would-be visitors is knowing which class is best suited for the proposed travel. The US Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs has a website that offers some guidance to foreign citizens on visa most appropriate for their travel to the US. Most nonimmigrant visa applications from the Pacific Islands fall into the B visa category – B1 for business and B2 for tourism. The visa application can be done online assuming there is reliable access to the internet. This can vary from one Pacific Island country to another. But the interview, a requirement to process the visa, must be completed in-person along with biometrics screening including a digital photo and 10 digit fingerprint scanning. This information is attached to the applicant’s visa, if issued. Due to limited consular services visa applicants, like the one in Honiara, Solomon Islands, applicants must travel hundreds of miles at considerable expense. This is a significant obstacle to applying for a visa and we know of many applicant-hopefuls who hear the requirements and decide not to apply.
The bulk of Pacific Island country US visa applications are handled by just two embassies: US Embassy Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea and the US Embassy Suva, Fiji. The Port Moresby Embassy processes visas for Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands. The Suva, Fiji Embassy processes visas for Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga and Tuvalu. Samoa ‘s embassy in Apia has limited services. To overcome this the embassy hosts “visa weeks” where consular officers from the U.S. Consulate General in Auckland, New Zealand travel to Samoa once every ten weeks to conduct nonimmigrant visa interviews. How visas are processed can impact the application rate, refusal rate and issuance rate of visas for Pacific Island countries citizens.
In 2019, the last full year of data on non-immigrant US visas prior to the pandemic, there were a total of 8,315 visas issued to Pacific Island country applicants. The number of visas issued between 2013 to 2019 ranged from 7,333 to 10,861. Using World Bank population data from 2019 the rate of US non-immigrant all class visas issued per 10,000 people living in Pacific Island region was standardized and found to be 7/10,000 people.
The population standardized rate/10,000 of all classes of US visas issued is listed below based upon the issuing embassy in the Pacific Island Region.
US Embassy rate per 10,000
Suva, Fiji 44.0/10,000
Port Moresby PNG 1.5/10,000
Apia, Samoa 65.0/10,000
Pohnpei, FSM 2.1/10,000
Majuro, RMI 19.0/10,000
Koror, Palau 11.0/10,000
The visa data in the table below is broken down by embassy (bold face), the countries that are part of their mission and by nationality. It includes the total number of visas issued by embassy in 2019, Nationality specific non-immigrant visa issuance data from 2019 standardized using the 2019 population and the 2019 refusal rates for B visas adjusted for refusal overcome.
|2019 visas total issued||2019 visa issue rate/10,000||2019 refusal rate B visa|
|POM, PNG embassy||1594||1.5/10,000|
|Suva, Fiji embassy||5212||44/10,000|
|Total PIC visas issued 2019||13527||7/10,000|
As a reference point to the above data: the 2019 rate of US visas issued to Australia was 18/10,000 and the adjusted B visa refusal rate was 19%. The United Kingdom’s US visa issuance rate was 14/10,000 with the adjusted B visa refusal rate of 21%. Note both of these countries are in the US Visa Waiver Program.
Percentages of types of US non-immigrant visa classes issued to Pacific Island applicants:
70% of visas issued are B1,2
8% are transit and crew member visas
6% are Foreign government official visas
5% are representative or staff of an international organization visas
5% are transit to another country
3% are exchange visitors
2% are student visas
It is important to note citizens of the Compact of Free Association States: Palau, Republic of Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia can travel visa free to US with no restriction on length of stay. However, admission is not always guaranteed and can be refused based upon criminal or other individual specific criteria. Visa refusals tend be based on unrealistic reasons and resources for travel and potential risk of staying or working in the US instead of returning home.
Data on visa issuance and visa refusal rate varies widely from one Pacific Island country to another. With more than 50% of visas being issued as B1,2 tourist and business visas the refusal rate is also quite small (2%).
The current Pacific Island country regionalized visa application process imposes limitations to Pacific Island citizens visiting or studying in the US at a time where the US looks to strengthen ties with the region. The data above highlights where the process should be adjusted. The US embassy in Samoa’s use of “visa weeks” appears to work based upon having the second highest issuance rate in the region. This is something the State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs should take notice of. Tonga’s high rate of visa issuance may be influenced by the large diaspora of Tongans living in the US.
Why do some Pacific Island Countries have such low rates of issued visas along with low refusal rates? Is there a flaw in the population data that skews these number? If anything, the visa issuance problem in Papua New Guinea is probably worse due to a reported population that may be too low. Are the majority of citizens in Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea being discouraged from applying for US visas? Could these low metrics be due to limited US relations or knowledge, limited diaspora to provide support, or a reputation of having a difficult visa application process? Are citizens being discouraged based upon limited financial means, access to internet or lack of in-country visa services? The case of Samoa suggests consular services can make a difference in visa issuance rates. If this is the case shouldn’t the visa application process where embassy and consular services are limited be reviewed? The case of the young Solomon Islands doctor suggests so. It also highlights two areas to address in order to encourage people to people exchanges on an educational as well as tourism basis.
The first, the in person interviews. These interviews could be conducted by the local consular office or by the regional embassy using Zoom. Biometrics can be collected on site by a designated consular staff person and transferred to the regional embassy for visa processing.
A better solution is the Samoa solution: the regional embassy or US Consulate General sends a visa staff person (or team) to each mission country for one week every two months in order to conduct “visa week” interviews and collect biometrics locally. The cost of one or two staff traveling is far less than that of 10-20 applicants every month traveling to the embassy. Just this concession alone will send a message to people wishing to visit the US that our doors are open to them.
The standard application fee of US$185 should be reviewed and stratified based upon the economic status of the country from where the applicant is applying. Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea are among the lowest developed countries in the world as defined by the UNDP HDI. Visa pricing should be scaled to gross national income per capita. This type of scaled fees could be trialed in the Pacific Region and if successful expanded to other countries with low GNI/capita.
The State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs should give some consideration to extending the US Visa Waiver Program to Pacific Island countries, in particular Solomon Islands and possibly Papua New Guinea. Solomon Islands Ministry of Commerce, Industry, Labor and Immigration issues ePassports a US Visa Waiver program requirement. In addition to the above requirements security measures in Solomon Islands as well as Papua New Guinea would need to be reviewed by Homeland Security including:
enhanced law enforcement and security-related data sharing with the US;
timely reporting of both blank and issued lost and stolen passports;
maintenance of high counterterrorism, law enforcement, border control, and document security standards
The number of US non-immigrant visas issued to people living in the Pacific Islands who wish to visit, do business or study in the US varies by country and by what services the embassy or consulate provide. Concessions need to be made so the application process is not financially onerous and disruptive to the applicant’s work or daily schedule. Addressing the obstacles to applying for a US visa is one way the US can signal its serious intent of establishing ties with the people living throughout the Pacific Island countries.
 Refusal Overcome: in cases where the initial decision to deny a visa or suspend processing in a visa case is “overcome” by new information or changed circumstances that establishes an applicant’s eligibility for the visa and the visa is then issued.