Friday, 18 December 2015

Meandering journeys through restrictions and intersecting regimes of mobility

By Dorte Thorsen

Contemporary policy regimes in Britain, and in Europe in general, aim to manage migration through the separation of what are perceived as productive and desirable forms of migration and what are seen as threatening or undesirable forms. Such perceptions are not objective. As migration scholars Nina Glick-Schiller and Noel Salazar[i] point out, they normalize the movements of some people, while criminalizing and entrapping the ventures of others.

So much attention goes into this separation currently and produces a deeply problematic conflation of refugees and migrants that not only runs the risk of violating the rights of refugees but also of forgetting to assess whether the criteria for separating one category from the other are apposite. If you read Dew’s story, you get an idea of the level of ambition, the large sums of money spent to pursue that ambition and the ingenuity demonstrated by many migrants to find solutions. Their perseverance begs the question why people with so much ambition and capacity to cope with difficult situations belong to the category of undesired migrants.

With the exception of a narrow range of professions, migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are increasingly excluded from established and legal transnational mobility flows, not just to the global North but also to the stronger economies in Asia and the Middle East, and to African states that have aligned their mobility regimes with those of the European Union.

Restrictions on foreign nationals’ mobility and settlement are not a new phenomenon in Africa. For decades migrants have been labelled as irregular migrants, their local mobility has been curbed and expulsions of migrants have been articulated as part of national security concerns during conflict or crisis or as part of broader efforts to curb migration. Migrants across the continent have experienced having their identity papers and residence cards inspected at random by state authorities and others, who regularly demand levies whether the papers are incomplete or not.

‘Irregularity’ and ‘illegality’ then is more than a question of preventing undocumented migration; it is a political construction used to criminalize and exclude certain groups of migrants, and to fuel a growing industry in itself of equipment and personnel to separate the desired migrants from the undesired ones.

European funding and technical support for border control and for pre-departure prevention of irregular migration now extends beyond North Africa to African states known as sending countries. As a result mobility patterns have changed in three important ways. First, previously established migration routes towards North Africa have become more difficult and dangerous to traverse for migrants who are seen as potential irregular immigrants to Europe. Second, migration has been rerouted from both long-established and more recent places of destination to a much broader range of locations. Third, journeys require increasingly ingenious ways of circumventing border control, and they entail considerable danger of being delayed or blocked at all stages of the journey. Contingencies shape migrants’ trajectories as they navigate the closure of imagined possibilities, insecurities where they are stuck, and the opening of never-thought-of opportunities.

When potential and actual migrants seek to overcome these politically erected barriers to realize their aspirations for the future, breaking the law is not at the heart of their strategies, even if they do clash with international legal systems. Rather, the use of forged papers, carefully constructed applications for visas or asylum, and the clandestine crossing of borders, contest the power of documents.

They challenge what Yael Navaro-Yashin[ii] has termed the material culture and ideological artefacts of modern states by ignoring the veracity and indispensability of such documents. In the regimes of mobility advocated and practiced in the global North, such disregard is perceived as the crux of illegality and not only individuals are criminalized: where corruption allows for the purchase of false papers, sometimes directly from the issuing state institutions, states too are criminalized and branded as conservatories of kleptocracy and bad governance.

The politics at play here entail the juxtaposition of a singular understanding of documents associated with the modern state with an imaginative understanding of how converging regimes of mobility open new spaces, in which enterprising individuals can make an acceptable living as migrants or non-migrants, inside or outside the continent.

Dorte Thorsen is the Theme Leader for Gender and Qualitative Research at the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium. Her research interests include child and youth migration and, since 2012, the lives of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa living in Morocco.


[i] Glick Schiller, N. and N. B. Salazar (2013) 'Regimes of mobility across the globe', Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 39(2): 183-200.
[ii] Navaro-Yashin, Y. (2007) 'Make-believe papers, legal forms and the counterfeit. Affective interactions between documents and people in Britain and Cyprus', Anthropological Theory 7(1): 79-98.

My meandering journey: from Africa to Asia to Europe

By Dew* and Dorte Thorsen

“My journey from Cameroon started when I was 19 years old and I got a visa for China; now fifteen years later I’m in France, hoping to receive the papers that will allow me to work. I’m a sportsman and I’m doing well. This year I came second in the regional championship.”

This is the story of a typical migratory pathway out of Africa, shaped as it is by increasingly restrictive regimes of mobility, a good portion of courage and perseverance and the ability to cope with uncertainty. And yet, each individual’s story has its own specificities making it highly personal and unique.

“I was a black belt judoka of second grade back home and having watched lots of Chinese movies, I thought it would a great place to continue my sporting career. I was lucky to get a visa but although I continued to compete in China, I had to have other jobs to sustain myself. I learned to DJ and through working in clubs got friends from all over the world. One helped me getting a job as a sports teacher at an international school. That was me sorted! For the next many years my life was smooth.
Just before coming back to Cameroon to renew my passport and see my family, things began to go wrong. I had a car accident, and then I had a run in with the police. I got out of it but ever since nothing has worked out for me.
My plan was to get my new passport during a two-week holiday but I was told they had introduced biometric passports and I’d have to wait at least six months for a new one. What should I do? I had my jobs and a girlfriend waiting for me, so I did everything I could to speed up my return. This meant getting a fake passport from one of the countries where they can easily be obtained. It was costly and apart from spending all my savings, I got extra money from my girlfriend and my brother.”
The introduction of biometric passports was pushed by securitisation and the EU’s global approach to migration management. European countries were not the only ones to tighten border control; by the end of the 2000s China had also become more restrictive in its immigration politics but rather than halting African transnational migration, it pushed migrants like Dew into irregularity.
“At first, I still wanted to return to China, so I tried to apply for a visa in every country I went through but every time they told me to go to Mali because I was traveling on a Malian passport at the time. I tried to arrange for a visa at the Chinese embassy in Bamako but when it fell through because my bank card got blocked; I got fed up and went to Algeria. This was where my journey to Europe began.
Seven months later I succeeded in getting a visa for Malaysia but, much to my own surprise, I stopped in my tracks, reflected on my situation and decided not to go. By then my girlfriend of eight years had broken off our relationship. Instead of going back to Asia, I went to Mauritania to obtain reliable information about the routes to the Canary Islands. In Noadhibou, I trained judo with the Spanish military officers who were on coastal patrol. One of them drew me into teaching judo to migrant kids. It was a great four months but, as I couldn’t make money through this work, I continued to Morocco.
Same thing in Morocco. All the work I did – in a bakery, in a restaurant, as removal man – I could only just make enough to pay for a small room and my food. It couldn’t get me anywhere. I had exhausted my savings and the money relatives and friends sent were few and far between. I gave up on getting a visa but still wanted to get to Europe, even though I thought crossing the Mediterranean was too dangerous. I knew I could trust my physical strength to get me there via the over-land route and thus after about a year in Morocco I decided to cross over the border fence into the Spanish enclave, Melilla.
This was easier said than done. The living conditions in the forest around Melilla were extremely rough. To get food was a problem, to sleep was a problem and to get health care if you fell ill was a problem. The area was raided frequently by the Moroccan military to discourage us from climbing the fence. To get across, we went in big groups of 100-200 persons, maybe the first 50 or 40 would succeed in crossing all three fences and the rest were beaten back. All the border patrols – Moroccan and Spanish alike - were vicious. One of the Cameroonians was beaten so severely in the head that he died of the injuries a week later.”
The violence used in the patrol of the Spanish enclaves’ borders was documented by Doctors Without Borders, amongst others, and finally motivated their withdrawal from Morocco in the spring of 2013. Human Rights activists in both countries document the violence and seek to ensure the protection of migrants’ right.
“I was so shocked that I went back to Rabat to take stock. While I was there, a whole group of my friends entered Melilla in a massive attack. If anything, I was physically stronger than they were, so I picked up the courage again. I tried several times. The day I had my luck, I was at the front and had no time to wait for anyone. Once I crossed the third fence I just ran. I ran as fast as I could to get away from the fence area where you risk being moved back to the Moroccan side even if you are standing on Spanish soil. I went straight to the police to register my arrival.
I’ve been waiting ever since. I’ve been waiting for 2 ½ years by now. I’m not sitting with my hands in my lap waiting. In Melilla I washed cars while waiting so I had money to buy internet access and a bit of clothes to look decent. In mainland Spain I was busy learning the language but as the job prospects were minimal I continued to France.
I’m still waiting. If I didn’t have my sport, I don’t think I could have coped with all this waiting. Some days I train a lot, but I don’t always have the means to eat properly to restore my body. When I first began to compete in France, I was surprised I didn’t get prize money when I did well, like we did in Cameroon. I’ve only managed to get work for a few weeks and with no income and no prize money I’ve had to rely on the kindness of others and I’ve had to move on because I couldn’t contribute to paying the bills. That is really, really difficult when you normally are a hard-working person. The day I get my papers and I can work, my life begins again!”

*Dew’s details are confidential, he has given his consent to publish his story.

Dorte Thorsen is the Theme Leader for Gender and Qualitative Research at the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium. Her research interests include child and youth migration and, since 2012, the lives of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa living in Morocco.


Minding the Migration Data Gap: new data from the Migrating out of Poverty Consortium

By Julie Litchfield

Research on migration and development has seen a dramatic resurgence in recent years. As Michael Clemens, Çağlar Özden and Hillel Rapoport Michael A. Clemens, Çağlar Özden, Hillel RapoportMichael A. Clemens, Çağlar Özden, Hillel Rapoportoutline in their introduction to the special issue on migration and development of World Development in 2014[1], part of this renewed interest and increase in published research is due to long overdue[2] improvements in the availability and quality of data. Estimates of international migration and remittances are now published by the World Bank and the UN Population Division compiles census data to give estimates of migrants stocks.

This improvement in data quality and data availability allows us to make tentative statements about the extent of internal and international migration. One of the most serious attempts to estimate internal migration is underway by researchers at the IMAGE project who use census data to estimate that globally in 2005 there were 229 million people living within the same country but in a different part of that country compared to five years before. Estimates for lifetime internal migration are much higher, with 763 million people in 2005 living outside their region of birth.[3]  Combining these with UN estimates of international migrants of 232 million people living outside their country of birth, suggest that nearly a billion people live away from their region of birth. 

Census data is useful for providing insights into how many people are migrants and their demographic profile but is less useful for understanding the why and the how of migration. Understanding why people migrate and for how long, how that contributes to, or even changes, their and their household’s livelihoods and well-being are just some of the questions of great interest to migration researchers and policy makers. These questions can be answered with qualitative research and there are some impressive examples to draw on which provide rich and nuanced stories of migrant lives. Deirdre McKay’s ethnographic work provides new insights into the aspirations and experiences of Filipino temporary labour migrants;[4] Trond Waage uses visual anthropological tools to document the lives of young migrants in west Africa; and Migrating out of Poverty (MOOP) partners at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, have used qualitative methods to shed light on the recruitment of Indonesian domestic workers.

Complementing this qualitative work is a growing body of evidence emerging from quantitative research using household surveys. These offer the opportunity to include more people in the research sample than qualitative research typically allows, anything from a few hundred to a few thousand people is pretty normal, and to use more detailed questions that capture a wider range of data than is feasible to collect in a population census. There are a growing number of household surveys for developing countries which capture information on migrants. For example, the Mexican Migrant Project collects and publishes data on migration between Mexico and the United States, and a number of household and labour force surveys now contain supplementary modules on migration.[5]  These are encouraging signs that the migration data gap is closing but there is still some way to go.  

The Migrating out of Poverty (MOOP) consortium is contributing towards this by publishing open access micro data from a set of five comparable household surveys collected between 2013 and 2015, in five developing countries: Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, Indonesia, and Zimbabwe.   The precise sampling strategy differs across countries, and we can’t claim that our samples are nationally representative. However because we adopt a purposive approach, selecting regions which are known to be migrant-sending and sampling quotas of households with and without migrants, we generate large enough sub-samples of households and individuals across different categories of migrants and non-migrants to make us confident that our findings are robust.

Our sample sizes range between 1200 and 1400 households, with data available on every member of those households. We adopt a near identical survey instrument in each country, which facilitates comparisons to be drawn across countries. Our household questionnaire includes a complete household roster collecting social, economic and demographic data on both migrant and non-migrant members of the household, and a specially designed module that captures interactions between migrants and their households in the form of remittances and social contacts. Our survey also explores perceptions of migration as a way of improving the living standards of households.

One of the important contributions the MOOP consortium hopes to make by collecting and publishing this data is to support more research into internal and intra-regional migration. As the figures of migration estimates quoted above suggest, three out of four migrants remain within their country of birth and much international migration is within the global South. Our data will help to shed more light on these movements and help to inform policies that respond appropriately to those affected by migration.

The full data sets from the first three of our surveys undertaken in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Ghana, are now available to download for free from Data is available in both STATA and SPSS formats and users can access the questionnaire and a short user guide for each survey. Data for Ethiopia and Zimbabwe will be made available in 2016. 

We want students, researchers and teachers to access the data, and policy makers to use it. Feed back to us and let us know what you do with it.

Bangladesh internal and international migration destination maps
Remittances help fund improvements in housing

[4] McKay D. 2012. Global Filipinos. Indiana University Press.
[5] See Santo Tomas et al (2009) for a useful audit of migration data.

Julie Litchfield is the Theme Leader for Quantitative Research for the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium (MOOP) and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of Sussex. Working Papers discussing aspects of the findings of the Bangladesh, Ghana, Indonesia and Zimbabwe surveys are also available. A summary of key data from the Indonesia survey has also been published. See also Eva-Maria Egger's presentation of the preliminary findings of MOOP's household survey conducted in Zimbabwe  and her related blog discussing the context:  Migration in Southern Africa: A Visit to the City of Migrants.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Cities on the climate front line

By Priya Deshingkar

Extreme weather has displaced around 26 million people from their homes every year since 2008. Yet climate migration has failed to make it on to the negotiating table at major climate change summits, and COP 21 could be no different.

The draft agreement gives short shrift to climate-induced migration: the word is used just twice in the 54-page document, and the only other mention relates to a “displacement coordination facility” to support those displaced. Campaigners and major migration agencies fear that even these will be axed from the final treaty. This matters because without momentum at global level, governments may fail to put in place policies and infrastructure to address links between climate and migration.

Extreme weather events and sea-level rise will displace people. But evidence shows this is unlikely to result in the ‘tides of people’ swamping Europe that scaremongers often speak of. [1]

Rather, cities in the global South are likely to bear the brunt of climate migration — or, to be more precise, their slums.

This is certainly the case in South Asia, which has some of the world’s fastest growing megacities. In Dhaka, capital of disaster-prone Bangladesh, roughly 350,000 migrants arrive every year, adding to the city’s 14 million inhabitants. Most are displaced from the delta region where storms and sea level rise have made farming less viable.

One way of viewing such migration is as a way to adapt to climate change. But government attitudes and policies around rural-to-urban migration are increasingly hostile. [2] Many governments refuse to provide services for fear of encouraging further migration, which they link to worsening crime, filth and disease. Research from Ghana and India shows the extent of government inaction.

This inaction keeps in place awful systems of waste disposal. Take the notorious ‘flying toilets’ of Accra and Nairobi, where waste is put into plastic bags and flung as far away as possible. Or open defecation, which plagues cities such as Delhi and Mumbai.

For cities to cope, local governments must recognise the inevitability of climate-induced migration, and take action to upgrade infrastructure and services.

This will be tough. The high density of informal settlements coupled with insecure tenancy can make it impossible to improve sanitation. Virtually every inch of land in informal settlements is in use, making it difficult to dig trenches for drainage. Many people live in tenements under constant threat of eviction, meaning landlords are reluctant to improve toilets.

Not only that, but many informal settlements develop in marginal areas of the city that are vulnerable to flooding and destruction due to severe weather.

There are more enlightened, imaginative approaches to improving urban settlements. In Mumbai, the NGO SPARC gathered feedback from local people and built community toilets that 20,000 people use every day. In Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, the Human Needs Project NGO developed a clever system of wastewater recycling for unplumbed neighbourhoods. Often these ideas come from local people themselves: the Global Initiative on Community-Based Adaptation is compiling and sharing information on what people are doing to adapt — and these ideas are likely to be more effective than top-down formulas.

But governments must also act. And cities shouldn’t only see newcomers as a risk or burden: often migrants are the most resourceful of their peers, providing cheap labour, trading and manufacturing goods for urban consumers. A more enlightened attitude to migrants will benefit cities and all who live in them.

Priya Deshingkar is Research Director of the Migrating out of Poverty research consortium. Her interests include precarious migrant occupations, exploitation in labour markets, informal settlements, gender and poverty. 

This blog was originally published by Sci.Dev.Net on 3 December 2015 under their Focus on Migration series and is also available at: 

[1] The Government Office for London Migration and global environmental change: future challenges and opportunities (UK government, 2011)

[2] UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs World population policies 2013 (UN, 2013)

Monday, 2 November 2015

Migration in southern Africa – a visit to the City of Migrants

by Eva-Maria Egger

I spent three weeks in July and August this year in South Africa visiting researchers at the University of Cape Town and the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg as part of an exchange program funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). It gave me the opportunity to work with the data from the Migrating out of Poverty household survey collected in Zimbabwe earlier this year, while I was in the region which many of the migrants in the survey chose as their destination. But around this academic experience I also had the chance to see the two largest cities of the country and meet people who live and chose to live in them.

When you go to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg you can see historical documents illustrating the history and presence of immigration to Johannesburg and South Africa from all over the world. Johannesburg, the City of Gold, is also the City of Migrants. In the past the discovery of gold attracted many people from within and outside the country’s borders to come to Johannesburg and build a new life. Today vast economic opportunities attract the migrants. Not only can you see the factories and office buildings of various international companies in the city, but also a wide range of African shops run by people from all over the continent. This international mix, in combination with high unemployment among South Africans, was the backdrop to the violent xenophobic outbreaks after the World Cup in 2010. However, the City of Johannesburg and many academic and civil society actors are determined to change these attitudes.

Migrating out of Poverty partner the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) is partaking in ‘myth busting’ projects. All around the city you can hear stories about buses full of pregnant Zimbabwean women arriving daily in Johannesburg to give birth and stay in South Africa. There is little truth to such tales, but belief in them is strong, and politicians do not shy away from feeding into anti-immigrant attitudes similar to those we read daily in European news about ‘benefit tourists’. On one day I witnessed these attitudes first hand. I had visited a social project for children and youth in a township of Pretoria with a social worker from Rwanda. She has built this project together with a friend of mine. She and her family have lived in South Africa for more than 10 years now. We took a minibus back to the city and the driver started speaking in Afrikaans to me until we explained that I was just visiting and did not speak Afrikaans. His reaction was rather cold when asking me where I was from and what I was doing in South Africa, but still polite. Then, however, he turned to my Rwandan companion and asked her with a very suspicious undertone, where she was from and what she was doing in South Africa. I could feel the tension in the air, she felt threatened. So she replied with a lie, saying that she, too, was just visiting with me.

On the other hand, the City of Johannesburg is actively seeking to improve the situation of immigrants, be it international or internal, unskilled or skilled. The Business Union of South Africa is actively involved in anti-xenophobia campaigns, because businesses are looking for workers with skills which often they cannot find among South African workers. Many foreign business people I talked to told me that they were eager to hire South Africans, but in the end hired someone from Zimbabwe or other countries, because they were just better equipped with the skills the employer needed. Thus, the city recognizes that the integration efforts have to aim equally at internal migrants from rural parts of the country as well as at international immigrants to give them access to services and legal working opportunities.

Around 85% of migrants entering South Africa come from the Southern African Development Community. Most taxi drivers in Johannesburg I talked to came from different parts of the country or the continent. This puts the European media news stories on the ‘masses’ of immigrants from Africa with their suggestion that Europe is the dream destination for migrants from the African continent, into perspective. To me it seems that South Africa is the number one destination for many African migrants and the city of Johannesburg alone welcomes thousands of immigrants from within and outside the country every month. As the Mayor says, “This is not merely a challenge, but also an opportunity”.

And many people see and take this opportunity. Numerous artists, designers, musicians choose Jozi as their place of inspiration. Long ignored and run-down areas of the city are re-discovered and re-populated by businesses. Kids and youth speak at least three languages because they grow up surrounded by people from different parts of the country or the continent. Students at the famous University of Witwatersrand come from all over the country and the world. Many also hope to return to their origins and make a difference there, using the skills they learned and building on the networks they established in the City of Migrants.

Johannesburg, City of Migrants


Eva Maria Egger is a doctoral candidate in Economics at the University of Sussex, funded by the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium. Findings from the household survey that Eva-Maria worked on are published in the new working paper, Migrating out of Poverty in Zimbabwe, by Vupenyu Dzingirai, Eva-Maria Egger, Loren Landau, Julie Litchfield, Patience Mutopo and Kefasi Nyikahadzoi, which is available on the Migrating out of Poverty website.

Apart of the family? The dilemma of children domestic workers in Bangladesh

By Isabelle Austin

Farah is a 14 year old domestic worker supporting the daily domestic and child care chores of my neighbor’s house in Dhaka. They hired her at the age of 10 from her parents in a rural village; the family agreed because of their very low income and Farah’s alternatives of early marriage. They said that as a domestic worker, Farah chooses not to go to school, and undertakes chores such as cooking, washing clothes, and helping with errands. I am told “Farah’s a part of the family...we treat her like our daughter.” In fact when I first met her I thought just that, despite her different clothes, eating in a separate room and continually cleaning and cooking for the family.

Now I realise the practice of child domestic workers is very normal, and a growing reality of inequality between urban and rural Bangladesh. The most recent baseline study of child domestic workers in Bangladesh by ILO in 2006, found that out of 2 million domestic workers in Bangladesh, 12.7% are children.  According to rights activists, child labour is increasing, and young children from the age of 6 are migrating across the country to work and live as domestic workers to improve their livelihoods.

Conflicting with my assumptions of child labour and family life, this apart of the family notion leaves me with some lasting dilemmas:

1.      Exploitation and the plight of children working

Inter-governmental organisations highlight this as a blatant example of human rights abuse, as children take on work which is both time consuming, physically demanding and increases their vulnerability to sexual, verbal and physical abuse. Often the least paid in society; they can earn up to 400 taka a month (3.50GBP), most of which they give to their parents, yet work 12- 14 hours a day. Although the government has pledged to eliminate child labour by 2015, with the National Child Labour Elimination Policy 2010 to remove children in hazardous jobs, in reality, it is far from being achieved (Islam 2013).

2. Recruitment of children and the role of the ‘host’ family

RMMRU’s research offers important insights to the recruitment of children domestic workers.   Observations demonstrate two main routes of recruitment: through private agencies and intermediaries who directly employ young children, or through personal networks with individuals and families in rural villages. Preference is normally given to the latter as gains are made for the employer, who can pay lower wages and cut out agency costs. On the other hand, Heissler’s (2013) research suggests these contacts are trusted, influential, and may not always seek to take advantage of the children. These contacts are able to provide financial and social support to the child’s family and provide a safe option for the child to leave their village.

3. The position of girls within the wider society of Bangladesh...

... as deeply entrenched hierarchical and patriarchal attitudes prevent their access to public life. Despite Farah saying she does not want an education, and would rather work every day, is this a reflection of the social constructions and expectations of her in society? Moreover, why is it that her only alternative option is to be a burden to her home family and be married off at a young age? Across social constructions of gender, age, social class, and occupation, young female domestic workers can be said to be the least powerful in society.

4.      Children as rational economic actors

Do I accept the food a child serves me, who may not be getting paid at all? If I denied their services then this would undermine their position as a domestic worker. An important element of this is to consider children as rational economic agents, rather than victims, who are motivated to improve their own life as well as their families.

5.      Apart of the family?

The family household in Bangladesh is the most basic, primary institution for social and economic support, yet it can also be the most unequal. Despite the government’s efforts to eradicate child labour, child domestic workers will continue to be a part of family life here.

Actions to support child domestic workers should build upon principles of their rights to work, to better understand the causes and impact of migration, as well as the extent to which they took the decisions about their migration. Moreover we need more research into how remittances have improved the socio-economic opportunities of the children’s own households.


Heissler, K. A. 2013. Rethinking ‘trafficking’ in children’s migratory processes: the role of social networks in child labour migration in Bangladesh. Children’s Geographies, 11(1), pp, 89-101.

Islam, U. 2013. Child Domestic Workers increasing in Bangladesh. Available from:[AH2] 

Isabelle Austin was based at the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) in Bangladesh as the Migrating out of Poverty sponsored intern June-August 2015.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Intimacy, love, freedom, heartbreak, separation and migration

By Kate Hawkins
A conference participant views the 'Queer Crossings' poster

Sitting in front of a South African poster on ‘queer crossings’ was one of my highlights from the recent Migrating Out Of Poverty conference in Singapore. It made me happy that one of my pet subjects – sexuality – was being addressed by such a stellar line-up of researchers studying gender, poverty and migration linkages.

I find it difficult to think about gender without a corresponding focus on sexuality as the two things so often intersect in interesting and important ways. It is particularly pertinent when we look at issues of women’s empowerment:

If for example, you look at women’s empowerment through a sexuality lens, you see a more complete and realistic picture of a woman: not a victim, nor an end-product ‘empowered’ woman, but a woman with a complex and changing life. You see a woman whose well-being depends, among other things, on making choices about her own body, about pleasure and about her own sexuality. You also see a woman who lives within or perhaps challenges the confines of social pressure and expectations about her behaviour. A woman’s sexuality and identity can affect many aspects of her life including her work and her means to earn a living, her family relations, her ability to move around in public, her opportunities to participate in formal and informal politics, and her access to education.

It is also a useful way of thinking about gender in terms of men and people who define themselves as something beyond/outside the binary of man and woman. (Even Facebook now has a list of over 58 gender options that people can choose from to describe themselves. Some of us scholars are lagging behind on this score!)

Sexuality came up in many of the sessions at the conference – even if it was rarely used as a frame of analysis.

Poverty, precarity and sexuality
Susie Jolly has written about the importance of housing to the realisation of sexual rights and desires and the constraining effects of poverty. This seemed relevant to some of the examples of migrant life spoken about at the conference. Trond Waage’s film, Les Mairuuwas, followed migrants from the Central African Republic in Northern Cameroon who were working as water carriers. One character didn’t see the point of a home, or felt that it was an unnecessary use of resources. But when he moved in to a room he realised that he had invested in the community and it also gave him the opportunity to have a sexual relationship. We heard from many presenters at the conference about the (inappropriate/inadequate) housing conditions of migrant workers. Some were living in their workplace with employers, particularly domestic workers. It would be interesting to better understand the effects of these living and working arrangements on migrants’ abilities to form intimate relationships and the wider effects on their lives.

‘Dangerous’ sexualities and the female migrant
There is a prevailing narrative about the sexual vulnerability of female migrants which was echoed in some of the discussions at the meeting and the presentation on employment brokers was particularly chilling in this regard. However speakers also pointed to the way that female migrants are often stigmatised on the grounds of their sexuality – which is imagined as undisciplined and unruly when far from home.

In a memorable talk about young women from Zimbabwe Stanford Mahati quoted one boy as saying ‘Good girls do not cross the border’. Mahati’s analysis of humanitarian workers’ formal and informal discourse around working migrant girls showed that they were often labelled as ‘promiscuous’, ‘lacking in morals’ and ‘far from innocent’. Meanwhile Ishred Binte Wahid spoke about notions of ‘purity’ in relation to Bangladeshi women migrants who travelled to work in the Gulf States. Female migrants found that religious piety (for example wearing the burkah) was a way of counteracting negative aspersions about what may have happened in their sexual lives whilst they were away from their families. She questioned the notion of female migration as inherently empowering and pointed to how it could sometimes reinforce patriarchal norms.

We heard from South African sex workers in the MOVE visual exhibition. Sex workers are arguably some of the most maligned ‘bad women’ in patriarchal societies’ bogus hierarchy of womanhood. Visual methods enabled them to take back control of the stories about their lives and express their humanity. Chantel, a participant from Johannesburg, wrote in her journal,

Telling my story is so powerful for me. Every day I look forward to writing or thinking about my story. I want to take images that show the way that sex workers are treated. That I am a person. This project let me do this. It helps me to take away stress and to know that I am not alone.

The conference was silent on the issue of the clients of sex workers, despite the fact that it is likely some of them are men characterised problematically in the HIV literature as 'mobile men with money'. Migration researchers may have some interesting insights for their counterparts in health on this issue.

The pain and the liberation of separation
Some presentations at the conference explored the ways that prolonged separation due to migration could lead to challenges in maintaining ‘family unity’. One study from Indonesia showed how 18% of married migrants ended up getting divorced which was contrasted with a divorce rate on 7% in non-migrant families. This had particular impacts on the income of divorced women who also faced negativity from the wider community on account of their divorcee-status.

Deirdre McKay’s presentation of the lives of Philippine women working without documents in the UK explained how long separations with little chance of being reunited due to cost and visa restrictions created stress and a strain on family life. However, she also argued that living in chronic poverty can cause family tensions. She pointed to the potentially liberating aspects of separation in some circumstances and highlighted how when men are ‘dud’ husbands (i.e. they gamble, drink, or can’t look after money) there is often migration in lieu of divorce.

Future sexuality-migration exploration
As a newcomer to the field of migration studies it was fantastic to attend the recent conference. I hope that as work on gender continues there is critical reflection on the topic of sexuality and some cross learning with other programmes working on the poverty-sexuality links. In particular it would have been interesting to hear more about same sex desire and the migrant experience and to have a more explicit focus on heteronormativity. Interesting research from (my friends at) Galang in the Philippines described how lesbian women and trans men migrated because of homophobia and gendered discrimination. For these people migration (and the money earned) sometimes created opportunities for sexual freedom and improved status within the family but it could also leave people vulnerable to homophobic abuse. These are interesting insights which are ripe for further investigation in other contexts.
Kate Hawkins is the Director of Pamoja Communications. She works on communications and research uptake for projects looking at health, gender, sexuality, and more. Kate was the communications consultant on the Gendered Dimensions of Migration conference for the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium.

After the Migrant Leaves Home

By Kudakwashe Vanyoro

“I came here with the hope of a better future, nothing more than that. I couldn’t study because of poverty”. These are the exact words of Ram, a young male Nepalese migrant working in Japan, in the short film ‘After Ram Left Home’, which was screened at Migrating out of poverty’s gender conference in Singapore, 30 June – 2 July.
The film managed to capture some of the most powerful dynamics at play in the process of the migration of young males in Asia. These included the sacrifice of borrowing money - up to US$20,000 - to pay recruitment fees required to secure work in a restaurant; the tribulations of the left-behind wife and parents; and the promising yet lonely and uncertain life of the migrant seeking a better life elsewhere. The migration of Ram was undoubtedly informed by gender roles and expectations based on what I perceived to be the instinct to provide for his family and himself in order to make the statement “I am a man”. In many ways, Ram’s migration symbolised a rite of passage, of a sort.
Yet that social statement was underpinned by certain presumptions about how Ram was behaving in his host country, particularly on the part of his wife. She was very suspicious and convinced that he may be cheating on her with a more beautiful and younger girl (because that is ‘how man roll’). In as much as Ram felt that his manhood could be qualified and asserted through economic prowess, the migration that this entailed produced certain household challenges that were not easy to deal with.
Ram’s dad, on the other hand, felt that if only he had been a better man financially, his son would not have had to go through the process of migration that brings with it insurmountable debt and uncertainty. He must have thought that his son’s migration was a challenge to his own gender ascribed role: providing for his own kin and maintaining his nuclear family intact. In the film, he lamented over this and his sentiments, which  many sons growing up in nuclear families would also get from their dads, resonate with me. Ram’s wife, besides being continuously insecure about her husband’s degree of faithfulness, also had to grapple with adjusting to her new role of heading the house and supporting her in-laws which was not an easy task as it had previously been Ram’s role.
In as much as migration yields benefits as seen in Ram remitting money here and there, it is clear that it challenges the concept of family life as we are raised to understand it. Migration questions norms, brings us out of our comfort zones, and presents us with potentially newer ways of understanding and negotiating gender roles and the family. This is not limited to male migration as in Ram’s case. It is also a similar challenge in female migration.
In Zimbabwe for example, female domestic and cross-border labour migration were traditionally associated with prostitution. I’m certain that this is not unique to that context alone. Predominantly, women on the move are seen as deviant and are often ostracised and labelled as incorrect. However, I have seen many instances where female ‘cross-border’ migrants lift families from poverty and increase the family’s upward social mobility. During Zimbabwe’s economic crisis from 2000 to 2008, it was the women that dared to pick themselves up, challenging the status quo by migrating to sell baskets in South Africa. Leaving their children behind in the care of their grannies and fathers, through their agency these female migrants both challenged societal, cultural and economic structures, and facilitated household subsistence and development. Nonetheless, this migration presented challenges to the nuclear family as some men ended up taking up female-ascribed roles of caregiving and cooking.  
Evidently, both male and female migration is equally problematic. So the end question is; given the challenges that migration presents to the domestic setup is migration necessarily a bad thing? I don’t think so.
Through migration, individuals are able to shape their own lives beyond the scope of the conventional. We begin to understand gender and family in nuanced ways, if we allow ourselves to, that is. Poverty is one of the greatest challenges facing mankind today. It incapacitates families to an extent where there is ultimately no gender or family to talk about. So if migration can help with this, what should take precedence: the order of things or livelihood? I would argue that livelihood should come first. I think that the evidence speaks for itself.
So, what are the key lessons from all this? Migration is not without its challenges. But what does it challenge predominantly? It challenges how we do things, what we tell ourselves is the domestic order of things. But interestingly, it questions our gender ascriptions about who should be cooking and caregiving against who should be working outside the home; who should be making decisions in the household and who (if anyone) should be subservient. More importantly however, by challenging the status quo, it illuminates. It does so by showing us that daddy is actually a good cook after he cooks the food that mummy sent from her income using the cross-border bus (and that that food still tastes the same). It shows us that women are equally good decision makers in the family when daddy is working in another country. Most of all, migration is key to development in contexts where there is not enough on the table. If we adequately harness it and allow ourselves to see the family beyond traditional gender roles, norms and expectations, there are more victories in store for us in the fight against poverty.  

*Acknowledgements: ‘After Ram Left Home’ by Dipesh Karel (University of Tokyo) was screened at the Gendered Dimensions of Migration Conference held at the Asia Research Institute at National University of Singapore as part of his presentation to the conference.

Kudakwashe Vanyoro is a Research Assistant at the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. He was an intern under the Migrating out of Poverty RPC Research Internship Scheme from April to November 2014. His internship involved supporting all ACMS communications work, preparing and packaging policy briefs, research data capturing, undertaking desktop research and blogging on contemporary issues related to migration and poverty in Southern Africa.