Following an exclusive investigation by The Pacific Advocate, it can be revealed that a large number of university students from many Pacific Island countries who are studying in Suva, are finding themselves in dangerous debt traps at the hands of loan sharks and at the mercy of their landlords in Fiji.
It should be a simple trip to Fiji to study and gain qualifications, but for many it has turned out to be a nightmare where hundreds and even thousands of dollars are owed to loan sharks and landlords.
According to some students, 90 per cent of their compatriots owe someone money because their allowances do not come in on time.
Most Pacific students who study either at the University of the South Pacific or the Fiji National University are on scholarships funded by their respective countries. The students are from the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Tonga, Samoa, Kiribati and Tuvalu.
If owing money is not enough, many are forced to stay in inhumane conditions where more than four or five students occupy one room.
When students come to Fiji they must find accommodation, and most tend to stay in groups to share rent and other expenses.
However over the last two decades students have become economic commodities for many Fijians who own apartments or have multiple flats where they charge exorbitant rents and do not care how many people live in them.
“Where I stayed we paid FJ$1800 per month for 3 bedrooms, so in order for us to able to pay that much we have to stay overcrowded inside, so we were nine boys living together with no privacy because three people are sharing one room,” a student said.
“We paid that much money for houses in poor conditions, but we do not have a choice”.
One student said they had to go without food at times, which led to many helping each other. Situations arose where one loaf of bread was the only meal they would have in a day.
Solomon Islands and Vanuatu students have been subjected to delays in allowances and their respective governments are aware of the situation.
Making ends meet after allowances are delayed has led many students to loan sharks, who are known locally as money lenders.
In Fiji, a money lender charges an interest rate of 20 per cent per week and it accumulates every week. If a student loans $100FJD, after three weeks he or she ends up paying $160FJD.
“On top of that, the cost of living here is very expensive, as compared to our monthly allowance, and when I said that I’m talking about rent, food (shops and local foods in the market) water, electricity, stationaries, transport and other necessities,” said another student.
Vanuatu High Commission in Fiji’s education attache Thomas Butu said the delays were not necessarily the fault of the government.
“Delays are not uncommon (and) we have processes that need to be followed before their allowance is released. Each student must be assessed if they met the requirements for a particular scholarship, but allowance is usually at the latest three days late,” Mr Butu said.
He said in the case of Vanuatu students, the Vanuatu Government handled their allowances and these were often paid in lump sums.
Whereas, the Vanuatu National Provident Fund (VNPF) looks after a student’s tuition fees, rent, and travel costs under their “Member Education Support Scheme”.
“VNPF funds get delayed because a student or their landlord do not provide the required proper paperwork needed in order for their application to be processed, so when this is delayed, the allocation of funds is delayed as well.”
He urged students to use their money wisely and not spend it recklessly on alcohol or any other unnecessary extra-curricular activities, but rather focus their resources on their studies.
In the case of some students, the allowances run out because there is a tendency to drink and party when the allowances come in.
Former students speak
Anthony Batram has been in Fiji for 15 years now. He came to study at the Fiji National University and settled in Suva after falling in love with his Fijian wife.
“We had the same problem. Most of it had to do with the boys spending too much money on drinking alcohol,” he said.
“What we did was send one person to the money lender but a whole lot of us pitched in to pay back the loan.
“My thoughts are that the solution lies in teaching students financial literacy. Nobody told us or gave us warnings, we came and got lost but we survived. And I think respective governments need to come with a better payment system to make payments.”
Tongan Sione Vunipola was a USP student and he and his friends had times when they were scraping for food.
“I remember those days and it is still happening now. The money comes in a lump sum and we use it and then we have none,” he recalled.
“Luckily, Tonga and Fiji are close and some of the students could ask for more money from back home and those who could not relied on the Tongan community in Fiji.”
Suva is possibly the fastest growing city in the Pacific. Not only is it the regional hub but Fiji’s main city. Apart from the regional convergence onto Suva, there is a healthy urban drift making housing a very sought-after commodity.
Homeowners near USP and FNU campuses rent out their flats to students and in what can only be described as exploitation, instead of charging for the whole flat as is usual, they charge by rooms to make more money.
Ashok Kumar who owns four flats in Laucala Bay in Suva denied it is exploitation, claiming the students did not mind sharing if they could not afford the rooms.
“One room is $600 a month and you can have four students in one room. It is not overcrowding if they are agreeing to stay. Besides most of them are at the university most of the day anyway,” he said.
Tuvalu student Alani Herenui stays in a flat with eight other students and they share three bedrooms.
“We pay $200 each a month and that is inclusive of water and power. We can’t do much because we do not want to stay elsewhere which is far from USP,” she said.
The Ministry of Health in Fiji said they only follow up on complaints of overcrowding but they had not received many from university students.