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The government in 2006 moved to tighten immigration laws to cope with an influx of illegal migrants, particularly from China. Proposed measures would give the police expanded powers to detain suspects and deport foreigners who are married to islanders.
The atolls and islands that constitute the present-day Republic of the Marshall Islands were claimed by Germany in 1885 and then occupied by Japan during World War I. U.S. forces ousted the Japanese during World War II, and in 1947, the group was placed under U.S. trusteeship. In 1986, the republic gained full independence. Rising sea levels present the greatest threat to the future of the Marshall Islands—two islets, Tebua Tarawa and Abanuea, disappeared in 1999.
Kessai Note in 2000 became the first commoner to hold the post of president after his United Democratic Party (UDP) won the December 1999 general elections. In the November 2003 parliamentary elections—the seventh national election since independence—the UDP won a majority in the 33-seat House of Representatives. Note was elected to a second term in the subsequent presidential elections held in the same month.
The country maintains close relations with the United States under a Compact of Free Association, which came into force in 1986 and was renegotiated in 2003. Under the agreement, the Marshall Islands grants the United States the right to establish military facilities, including a base and a missile range on the Kwajalein atoll, in exchange for U.S. defense guarantees and development assistance. The amended compact, which came into force in 2004, promises the transfer of $57 million from the United States over 10 years and another $62 million over the following 10 years. Marshallese also retain visa-free entry to the United States to live, work, and study, as well as access to education and medical services in the United States during the 20-year period. The Marshall Islands in turn promise to crack down on illegal passport sales, which have been a problem since the mid-1990s. An oversight body with representatives from both countries ensures that funds are spent effectively. Compact funds represent nearly half of the Marshall Islands’ government budget.
The amended compact extends use of the Kwajalein missile-testing range through 2066 in exchange for $2.3 billion and an $800 million trust fund, which will replace direct U.S. assistance after the compact expires in 2024. However, landowners on Kwajalein atoll—which has been the primary U.S. testing ground for long-range nuclear missiles and missile defense systems since 1964—want $19 million in annual rent, $4 million more than what the U.S. has offered. The two countries also have to reach agreement on compensation for damage caused by nuclear weapons tests on the Bikini and Enewetak atolls some 50 years ago. Bikini remains uninhabitable, while Enewetak is partly contaminated. The original compact provided a $75 million trust fund for health and environmental restitution, but personal injury awards alone exceeded the fund by more than $10 million.
In 2006, the government considered several measures to stop Chinese nationals from overstaying 30-day tourist visas and working without permits. One proposal would give immigration officials the power to arrest and detain an alien for deportation without the need to first obtain a warrant. Other measures would require alien workers to carry photo identification cards, and those lacking the documents would be subject to arrest; foreign nationals suspected of fraudulent marriages with Marshallese would also be deported.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands is an electoral democracy. The president, who is the chief of state and head of government, is chosen for a four-year term by the unicameral House of Representatives (Nitijela), from among its members. The members of the 33-seat Nitijela are directly elected to four-year terms. An advisory body, the Council of Chiefs (Iroji), consists of 12 traditional leaders who are consulted on customary law. The UDP is the current ruling political party. The other major party is Ailin Kein Ad (Our Islands), which counts more traditional leaders among its members. Both groups are relatively informal in structure and organization.
The republic’s constitution requires the Nitijela to review the constitution once every 10 years, and the last review was held in 1994. A vote to hold a constitutional convention requires the support of two-thirds of the lawmakers, and two attempts to pass the bill have failed. Opponents say improving the terms of the Compact of Free Association with the United States and winning additional compensation for health and environmental damage resulting from U.S. military tests are more urgent matters. Unable to secure the necessary majority, the ruling UDP has proposed a national referendum to decide whether or not to hold a constitutional convention. The government wants to introduce 30 amendments to the constitution, including a switch to a system of direct elections for the president, a clear separation between the executive and legislative branches, tightened immigration rules, and the elimination of four constitutional rules on search and seizure in order to make it easier for the police to gather evidence in criminal investigations.
Corruption is a considerable problem. Public dissatisfaction with official abuses has led to calls for change, but international watchdog groups and domestic critics have reported little progress on reform and improving transparency. The country was not surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government generally respects freedom of speech and of the press, although journalists occasionally practice self-censorship on sensitive political issues. A privately owned newspaper, the Marshall Islands Journal , publishes articles in English and Marshallese. The government’s Marshall Islands Gazette contains official news but avoids political coverage. Two radio stations, one government owned and one church owned, carry news broadcasts from overseas and offer diverse views. The government station carries public service announcements and live broadcasts of legislative sessions, and cable television offers foreign news, entertainment, and occasional reports on local events. U.S. armed forces radio and television broadcasts can be received in some areas. The government does not restrict internet access, but penetration rates are low owing to cost and technical access difficulties outside the capital.
Freedom of religion and academic freedom are respected in practice. College education is rare among Marshall Islanders. Of the country’s 55,000 people, only a small number have completed four-year college programs in the country and overseas, while several hundred attend two-year programs in teacher training, nursing, computing, and a few other areas at College of the Marshall Islands. Recent surveys and studies found the country’s education system in serious trouble: only 18 percent of its 900 teachers passed both the reading and writing sections of the high school English test. Most high school graduates have only elementary school–level math proficiency, and less than half have elementary school–level English proficiency. Very few incoming freshman university students score high enough on entrance tests to qualify for credit courses. The government wants to introduce reforms, but resources are limited, and some of the most talented individuals do not return after going overseas for higher training.
Citizen groups operate freely in the country. Many are sponsored by or affiliated with Christian church organizations to provide social services. The government broadly interprets constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly and association to cover trade unions. There is no formal right to strike or engage in collective bargaining, but there are no formal prohibitions against such activities.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, although past governments have tried to influence the courts. The government raised judges’ salaries in recent years to attract and retain more qualified jurists. Nearly all judges, prosecutors, and public defenders are foreigners because there is not enough local expertise. There were no reports of police abuse of suspects or prisoners in 2006. Detention centers and prisons meet minimum international standards.
Social and economic discrimination against women are widespread despite the country’s matrilineal heritage, in which traditional rank and property are passed through female bloodlines. Domestic violence against women is often alcohol related. The country has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the region. Each year since 2000, nearly one-fifth of all babies have been born to teenage mothers.