On Migrants and Movement

By Liepollo Pheko · 15 Dec 2010

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments
Picture: Purple Sparks
Picture: Purple Sparks

There are currently about 200 million people living outside their countries of birth. Worldwide the rate of migration grew at six percent a year during the 1990s, a rate faster than population growth as a whole.

Better opportunities for employment are among the main reasons people choose to migrate.

According to the Pew Hispanic Centre, 11% of everyone born in Mexico is currently living the United States in search of better opportunities in the world’s biggest economy. At the same time, there are 11 million Filipinos outside the Philippines and their remittances alone contribute to 13% of the country’s GDP.

Estimates on the number of Zimbabweans in South Africa range from the somewhat hysterical eight million to the more realistic two million. Their remittances are credited with having kept the fraught Zimbabwean economy afloat for the last decade or so.

In the developed world, a major pull factor is aging populations combined with low-birth rates and longer life expectancy, causing a shortage of skilled people. For example, immigrants are increasingly filling healthcare posts. Developed economies have always needed workers from less developed economies.

It is well known that immigrants with the lowest levels of skills enter the labour market to occupy jobs that are usually scorned by the local population in sectors such as primary industries, agriculture or personal services. This is primarily why people of colour from Asia, Latin America and Africa are making beds, waiting tables, working illicitly in sweatshops, looking after children and doing back breaking care work across Europe, America and Australia.

In theory, the inflow of foreign workers helps to fill the gaps in the domestic supply of labour. But foreign workers can also operate as a factor to keep wages down and drive up capital surpluses, which is partly why local workers across the world are often against large-scale immigration.

Its affect has been to erode basic class solidarity and entrench a false dichotomy between local and migrant workers.

In countries such as South Africa and the United States, the dichotomy between the two is very fragile since both economies were built by generations of migrant workers, many of who have settled in the host countries for many generations. At one point, at least one in five miners in South Africa were from across the Southern African region.

The story of migration is not a simple one of supply and demand. Migrants, refugees, immigrants, sometimes even students and tourists encounter increasing manifestations of hostility and violence against non-nationals.

In Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, discrimination and abuse is rampant against persons coming from neighbouring countries. Surprisingly these are often people with largely shared racial, ethnic, cultural and historical characteristics.

South Africa’s rabid history with Afro-phobia, in my opinion, is wrongly characterised as xenophobia.
In Europe, the frenzy about undocumented migrants has a particular racial overtone. People of African and Middle Eastern origin are particularly unwelcome.

Recently Europe’s frontline agency in the fight against undocumented migrants, Frontex, has come up with ever more extreme solutions to keep poor black undocumented workers out of “Fortress Europe.” A recent Inter Press Service report reveals that Frontex has called for expressions of interest for small unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) to patrol Europe’s borders and track the movements of migrants.

But worldwide today almost every nation is a country of origin, of transit and of destination. Many are all three.

Virtually every country has become or is fast becoming multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-religious. There are Chinese, Indian, Nigerian, Senegalese, Ethiopian, Italian and Mexican restaurants just about anywhere in the world. Parts of major cities such as New York, Toronto, London, Brussels, Paris, Chicago and Sydney also resemble ‘somewhere like home’, as migrant communities, both new and old, create enclaves of cultural familiarity.

Instead of embracing these new constructs of citizenship, identity and culture, host communities jostle to protect and close off their interests, their religions, their cultures and schools. For example, in the 1980s, many public schools in London had ‘host classes’ for Vietnamese and Chinese children, which supposedly were intended to help them to adjust and learn English fast. The opposite occurred and the separation merely underscored the politics of the ‘other’.

Conventional explanations for migration focus on economic, political and natural disasters or environmental factors.

In many developing countries, the state’s inability to create viable and vibrant market places for skilled labour and independent thinking has been cited as a reason for the outward movement of people. This is why there are so many brilliant MBA graduates from Africa flipping burgers and working as security guards in London and New York.

Their home countries are sometimes characterised as failed states. But this is a simplistic view. A more useful appraisal might consider the manner in which these countries have taken partisan positions, which undermine social development and sustainable economic expansion.

The sort of upheavals seen in the last 15 years in Rwanda, Burma, Thailand, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Somalia and Central America are as much about internal conflicts as they are linked to external demands for unfettered access to resources.

Given the coercive nature of global capitalism, which includes the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and the European Commission’s Economic Partnership Agreements, some states do find themselves in difficult positions. However, their willingness to pursue unfettered free trade in the face of increased environmental degradation, labour law violations, non-beneficial foreign direct investment and capital flight, is also a major factor that causes immigration.

Moreover, the compound effects of the implementation of Structural Adjustment Programmes brought with them increased austerity measures, reduced social investment in government housing, education, health care, subsidies for local producers, increased debt servicing and aid dependency. All of this contributed to the fragility of states and impacted on their relationships with their citizens, driving many to countries with better opportunities.

This is what prompted the United Nations Population Fund to declare, “The basic determinants of international migration lie in the inequalities, which exist in levels of development, and the enormous magnitude, persistence and agony of those inequalities in the globalized world of today heighten the so-called pressures for migration,” (UNFPA, 1998).

As a concept, migrant justice faces definitional difficulties for several reasons. Migrants are not a homogeneous group with monolithic preferences, requirements and skills. This means that governments should take into account how citizenship is defined by migrants’ identities, roles and entitlements in relation to the host state and how these will be protected.

All of this negates a very important point, which is freedom of movement and the right to migrate with dignity. It also fails to recognise that the same global economy, which has moved across the world unencumbered, is now the one that is hypocritically closing its borders, rejecting skills and stigmatising those who, having been failed by global capitalism, dare to demand more, notably those from the South, but also within the South.

How can we begin to forge identities that allow us to be affirmed and protected wherever we are?

It is a myth that we are all born equal and able to move around on equal terms to create a dignified life for ourselves anywhere in the world. We all have some work to do to turn that myth into reality.

Liepollo Lebohang Pheko is Executive Director at NGO/think-tank, the Trade Collective and is Africa co-convener of the World Dignity Forum.

Should you wish to republish this SACSIS article, please attribute the author and cite The South African Civil Society Information Service as its source.

All of SACSIS' originally produced articles, videos, podcasts and transcripts are licensed under a Creative Commons license. For more information about our Copyright Policy, please click here.

To receive an email notification when a new SACSIS article is published, please click here.

For regular and timely updates of new SACSIS articles, you can also follow us on Twitter @SACSIS_News and/or become a SACSIS fan on Facebook.

You can find this page online at http://sacsis.org.za/site/article/597.1.

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments

Leave A Comment

Posts by unregistered readers are moderated. Posts by registered readers are published immediately. Why wait? Register now or log in!


David Bennet
27 Sep

Movement and Migrants

This article remains as topical as when it was written. Frankly we have a terrible and narrow attitude towards each other and towards other Africans. I am amazed that we welcome German tourists more easily than Ghanian or Kenyan visitors. At some point we should criminlise hate crimes against African migrants. That song is less important than this issue.

Respond to this comment

Sister Grace
27 Sep

Moving and Running

These are difficult times and we need rigourous interventions. We cannot grow as a nation or continent for as long as we insist on re-enforcing colonial boundaries even in our own spaces, places and thoughts. Am so ashamed at times but this article gives hope because it speaks to basic dignity and reminds us that we are human and that no African is a foreigner or kwerekwere on this continent.

Respond to this comment