The first Tongan migrants to Southeast Queensland arrived in the 1950s to the 1970s either through marriage to a foreigner, or on scholarships to study medicine, dentistry and nursing, or on rugby contracts. In this period, Tongans could not easily access entry into developed countries as they did not have immigration ties with their former Protectorate, Great Britain. For instance American Samoans and Guamanians could move freely to the United States of America and the recognition of Cook Islanders, Niueans and Tokelauans allowed them to move and become New Zealand citizens. For Tongans, a better life in Australia, was a farfetched dream unless granted the opportunity to study, which at this time was reserved to the fortunate or wealthier families in Tonga.
Tongans did not receive any preferential treatment, and have had to rely on regular migration channels such as scholarships, marriage to foreigners and labour programs. The end to New Zealand labour migration schemes created immigration policies that tightened movement, limiting forms of migration. This also increased family reunification schemes. A high rate of overstaying Tongans led to restrictions on immigration opportunities to host nations like Australia.
In 2009, Australia commenced a seasonal workers scheme (PSWPS) offering labouring contracts to Tongan nationals. This consisted of Tongan men estimated at 30 to 40 people travelling to farming areas in Australia for the sole purpose of working as labourers during a busy season. Many were sent to Griffith, Mildura, Robinvale and later Mundubbera in Queensland. The purpose of this scheme was to financially assist Tongan men who otherwise lacked economic opportunities afforded to them in the homeland. Seasonal labourers as they are known under the PSWPS have had a varying degree of success with some individuals returning home with a substantial financial and economic assistance.
As with most migrants from underdeveloped countries, the underlying motivation for migrants to Australia is to seek a better life for their family and for those that choose to remain in Tonga. This is commonly referred to by Tongan migrants as kumi mo’ui, which literally means to seek a better life. For migrants, immigrating provides their next generation with a better or more improved chance at life, and opens up more opportunities compared with those at the home country. A migrant’s concept of the kāinga papalangi is of a people who are rich in everything, particularly in material things. They wish to obtain such riches for their own family. Migration is primarily a response to real and perceived inequalities in socio-economic opportunities that are themselves a result of dependent and/or uneven sectoral and regional development.