Friday 20 July 2012

Europeans looking for greener pastures in Africa

Who could have thought this just a few years ago? With the economic crisis hitting many countries hard, and unemployment soaring, Europeans have started emigrating again in large numbers.

While the Portuguese move to France and Brazil, Greeks explore better futures in Germany, Australia and Turkey. At the same time, young Spaniards are moving towards Britain, France and Germany. In Britain, Spaniards even seem to replace Eastern European workers. As a young, Spanish waiter told me smilingly: "We are the new Poles!".

And with the demise of the property bubble of the "Celtic Tiger", the Irish have resumed historical patterns by massively moving out again to English speaking countries such as Britain, Canada, Australia, US and New Zealand.

But who could have thought that Europeans would be looking for greener pastures in Africa?

Yet, this is happening. For instance, Portuguese jobless graduates flee to Africa as they have discovered opportunities in Portuguese-speaking countries like Mozambique and Angola, whose economies are booming and in dire need of young, skilled workers. A recent news report showed that in 2010, 23,787 Angolan visa were issued for Portuguese, against only 156 in 2006.

A recent documentary on Dutch television showed how young Spanish increasingly try their luck in Morocco. It shows young Spanish, who flee unemployment and impoverishment and find work opportunities and more affordable living conditions across the Strait of Gibraltar.

I can warmly recommend the documentary (although the voice-over is in Dutch, much of it is in Spanish), as it shows the world upside down: A young Spanish women crying on a rooftop terrace in Tanger, from which she can see Spain. Working at a Moroccan call-centre, she does not have the money to return regularly. A 38 year old man who has lost all he has who is looking for work in Morocco and who just received 60 euros from his mother in Spain to survive the next few weeks.  Another man working at a small factory making furniture, considering himself "lucky" to have found work in Morocco. Many of them consider Morocco as a country of opportunities.

This does obviously not fit into Europeans stereotypes of Africa as the continent of misery. Who would want to go there? This portrayal of "Africa = misery" is misleading in the first place, and goes back straight to colonial times, when Europeans fabricated stereotypes about African "backwardness", tribalism, chaos and poverty as a justification for their "civilizing" colonial mission.

Although violence and poverty have frequently occurred in several places and regions, other parts of Africa have been relatively prosperous and peaceful, and have in fact attracted migrants.

What many people ignore on top of that, is that some African economies are growing fast, and can nowadays offer better opportunities to skilled, entrepreneurial Europeans than the stagnating economies of Southern and European Europe. In addition, many African economies have been sheltered from the worst effects of the Global Economic Crisis because their banking sectors are less liberalized and therefore better protected.

It is impossible to predict what the future holds. Of course, if European economies pick up again, it is likely that emigration will fall and immigration increases again - Although it remains a question to what extent and when economic recovery occurs, as the current crisis seems to be a protracted one, and may last for many more years. It would also be dangerous to exaggerate African growth and to deny that many Africans continue to live in conditions of extreme poverty insecurity. And it would also be naive to think that Africans will stop migrating themselves.

However, it is important to go beyond colonial stereotypes of Africa as a continent of misery and to stop thinking that the whole world wants to come to Europe. In fact, this hardly concealing the idea the Europeans are superior.

The new European migrations towards Africa can teach Europeans a lesson: We are not the centre of the world. For centuries, Europeans have taken for granted that it is their right to "discover", occupy, conquer, visit and settle in foreign lands - without asking permission.

This continues until the present day. "We" find it normal that Africans need visas to enter Europe, but we think it is our natural right to travel abroad, and get upset when we are asked visas in return.

The irony is that while Europeans talk in belligerent terms of 'combating' illegal immigration from Africa as if Africans are a plague or a threat to security, Europeans can move to and settle in Africa with relative ease and do not even question this situation of inequality.

However, if this new European exodus continues, European governments may well be put under pressure by African governments to ease their own immigration rules.

So let's remind ourselves: With migration, always expect the unexpected.