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When you go to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg you can see historical documents illustrating the history and presence of immigration to Johannesburg and South Africa from all over the world.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.