South-South Mobility and Transnational Migration

My current research centers on South-South mobility and migrant transnationalism. With its focus on mobility within the Global South, this project challenges the emphasis on South-North migration prevailing in academic and policy-related research. Regionally, I focus on the transnational connections between Africa, the Gulf States and China. Thematically, I am interested in the particularities and incentives of these new migration routes; the ways in which migrants respond to and shape changing economic and regulatory environments; and how their experiences feed back into practices and discourses back home. I started this research in 2007 with a collaborative project on local perspectives on transnational migration from Cameroon together with colleagues and students of the University of Yaoundé 1. Subsequently, I conducted fieldwork on entrepreneurial migration from Cameroon to Gabon, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates. In the past years, I have extended my purview to China and am currently studying migrant perspectives on Chinese immigration law and policy, with a focus on African migrants in Guangzhou.

Global African Entrepreneurs

In Cameroon, as in many parts of Africa, international migration is a relevant topic and has inspired local visions of a better future. While western countries have long featured as preferred destinations, many Cameroonians have turned to alternative destinations in the Global South, both out of choice and necessity. Popular destinations today are countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, many of which offer economic incentives and relatively easy accessibility.

Bushfallers Creek
Wall-painting in a bar in Idenao, south-west Cameroon

While being attractive in different ways, not all destinations enjoy the same reputation. The popular term “bushfaller”, as indicated in the above picture, refers to a successful migrant who “made it” and now leads a good life in the West or any place associated with prosperity and modernity. For example, within the African continent South Africa may count as “bush”; China’s position is still being debated. Moreover, reputations can change. For example, due to the frequent travels of African traders to and fro Dubai, the Gulf States have recently lost much of their allure and may now be seen as an outpost of Cameroon rather than “bush”. Yet, what has attracted African migrants to places as varied as the Gulf States, Turkey, Russia and China are educational and economic opportunities. This has paved the way for a new category of global African entrepreneurs, as Mahir Saul and I have shown in our recent thematic issue African Global Entrepreneurs (UAS, 2014). Besides economic incentives, these new destinations are often characterized by migration regimes different from those in the West. In the Gulf States, for example, foreigners’ entry and stay is governed by the kafala or sponsorship system, which sanctions economic incentives but limits migrants’ rights. The kafala system has widely been portrayed – both in the media and academia – as facilitating the abuse of migrant workers. However, while there are ample examples of frustration and exploitation, there are also cases of prosperity and success. Cameroonians familiar with the system have mixed experiences and opinions. Some have made use of flexible regulations and loopholes that can make a successful stay in the Gulf States somewhat reachable and manageable.

Migrant perspectives on Chinese immigration
law and policy

immigration China
Sign board, Denfeng police station, Guangzhou, 2014

Recent changes in the Chinese immigration system and how they are perceived and maneuvered by African migrants is the subject of my current research. In this context, I am collaborating with Prof. Dr. Björn Ahl (Department of Chinese Studies, University of Cologne) in the joint project "Chinese Immigration Law and Policy: Perspectives of lawmakers, administrators and immigrants". Further project members are Lai Pik Chan and Jasper Habicht, whose PhD research focuses on the employment situation of foreign English language teachers in China, and on law enforcement through political campaigns in the field of Chinese immigration policy. The project is part of the international research cooperation "Immigration and the Transformation of Chinese Society" under the Europe-China Collaborative Research Programme on Understanding Population Change.
Our project “Chinese Immigration Law and Policy” investigates the social dynamics and outcomes of the implementation of the new exit-entry law of 2012 by focusing on the actions of state and non-state actors, including legislators, administrators and (im)migrants. It focuses on two sites: Beijing where the national legislator is located, and Guangzhou as a centre of commerce and foreign, in particular African (im)migration. As an Africanist and social anthropologist, I engage with the following questions: How do African migrants view and experience the implementation of the new exit-entry law? Which institutions represent their interests and how can they assist foreigners? How do African migrants relate their experiences in China with migration and citizenship discourses in other destinations and/or in their home countries?

Besides legal and policy issues, I have been interested in the ways African migrants have been represented in the Chinese public, and how they think about and react to these representations. To this aim, I have worked with the Chinese documentary photographer Li Dong and have organized the photo-exhibition BAOHAN Street: An African Community in Guangzhou, shown at the University of Cologne in October/November 2014 (see also exhibition catalogue).

My research is complemented by international collaborations as well as the projects of PhD and postdoc researchers:

  • Yang Zhou: 'Migratory birds fly south': African migrants in Guangzhou.
  • Séverin Kaji: African students in China: migratory projects and everyday life experiences.
  • Lai Pik Chan: Foreign English teachers in China - opportunities and challenges.
  • Jonathan Ngeh: 'Away from home': comparative analyses of migrant experiences in the Arab Gulf States and Northern Europe.

Documentary short by Michaela Pelican and Francesco Bondanini, 14:20 min., 2014.
Portrait of a Migrant Woman: Martha in Dubai.