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.


  1. excellent post...I shared it with colleagues.

  2. Hein, thanks for posting this. I shared it with my colleagues at the Lifestyle Migration Hub and it sparked something of a discussion. Although I realise that the migrants you refer to here are perhaps not primarily moving for lifestyle (although undoubtedly there are lifestyle dimensions of most migrations), I think that they share a lot in common with our respondents due to their 'relative affluence and privilege' vis-a-vis the local populations in their destinations, and so perhaps some of the findings from Lifestyle Migration research, and indeed, the body of research on 'expatriates' would be valuable as a resource for explaining some of this.

    I have a lot to say on this topic, but will restrict myself here. One of the key issues in what you have posted is to do with imagination and the shape of this. I think that it is interesting to point out how the representations that inspire this form of migration differ from the image of 'dark Africa' that we are all so familiar with. However, there are circulating representations that have been identified as being at the core of tourism mobilities and indeed, at the core of European migration to Africa (see for example Heidi Armbruster's excellent article on German's in Namibia) that are significantly different, although no less colonial in essence.

    The other issue that I want to respond to is the timing of the migration, coinciding with the recession. As I found in my work with the British in France, recession was a time of significant migration, probably because people found themselves with less constraints on their movements - i.e. through losing their jobs. In this case, there was an active choice to make good of a bad situation and try their luck elsewhere. This is one of the things I was thinking about when I read your piece on the financial crisis, that even in these difficult circumstances, there will always be some people who experiment with migration as a way of getting out of these circumstances.

    Anyway, thank you for reminding us of the ever-evolving global map of migration and for drawing attention to forms of migration that are so often overlooked in our conceptualisations.

    1. Dear Michaela

      Many thanks for this thoughtful and thought-triggering response. I do agree that there is a romantic version of living in Africa, which is as colonial as the 'dark Africa'. However, what struck me is that at least some of the Spaniards moving to Morocco do so primarily for economic reasons. I am also wondering to what extent we can really make a distinction between 'lifestyle' and 'economic migration', in the sense that many migrations contain an element of the exciting encounter with the 'other', and 'exotism' is not exclusively an affair of Westerners in the "Third World", but for an African migrant Europe can also be exotic. Anyway, lifestyle migration is not really my turf... but I'd love to discuss this more.

  3. Dear Hein, and Michaela. Both very interesting posts. I just wanted to comment that I agree with Hein on this idea of blurred lines between economic and lifestyle migration. Primarily in the sense that in some cases (as I saw in Bocas del Toro, Panama, and seems to be the case of Hein's work with Spaniards in Morocco) we see people from "developed" nations moving to cheaper locations because they see economic opportunities that would not be available to them in their country of origin. Or, as one of my interviewees commented...he'd rather be "poor" in Panama, than in England. In reality, he is not poor, but he certainly does not fit in to the affluent migrant category either.

    In summary, I feel that there is some resemblance to this type of migration described by Hein and myself, with the more traditional perception of Latin Americans in search of economic opportunities in the US and elsewhere... the main distinction perhaps being "need" vs. "want"?

    Thanks for the interesting post. I look forward to continuing discussions on the growing and evolving field of "new forms of migration", particularly in the context of rapid global political economic change

  4. Idiots theirs the invisible economy where humans are trafficked from the South to the North and their's the registered economy where Northern Europeans can emigrate all over the planet. Its not the same things. If Greece, Italy, Iberia and Florida become swamped with humans disease will spread like wildfire.

  5. Dear Hein

    This is a timely wake up call. it is not only a message to Europe and the rest of the Western world, but should also act as signal to Governments in Africa to re-think their outlook on global migration.

    The post is raising very broad but pertinent issues ranging from global (power)relations in terms of mobility, to geo-political, socio-economic and historical experiences that shape the current perceptions, attitudes and policy response to the various dimensions of migration.

    Your post also points to the complexity that is inherent in the current endeavours to explicate the contemporary global migratory patterns in the context of regulatory frameworks on human mobility. Moreover, it highlights the dilemmas, contradictions and omissions that are inherent in the migration and development nexus debate, where the focus is much more directed to the global south and less on the North.

    Besides the example you have just given of the new type of European emigration to Africa, we also have the case of South-North remittances which is hardly given attention. Using the case of Angola,United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon asked Angola to supply helicopters for peacekeeping missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, who would have imagined such a reverse order of global relations? A second example to emphasize the issues triggered by your post is the reverse flow of remittances from the south to North. While the volume of remittances has been acknowledged to surpass ODA attention is largely given to how this global migration-related resource can be harnessed (managed) for development in the south. Limited attention is given to remittances sent from the South to North (from expatriates and investors) or migrants who sustain themselves in the countries of residence using resources that are derived from their investments (real estate and others)in the countries of origin. Large number of well-established migrants are increasingly supplementing their incomes, mortgages and daily expenditures in the countries of residence with resources from the countries of origin. These flows have not been captured in much of the documentation of global flows. Interestingly, they are from the global regions that are considered less endowed with anything positive except poverty, disease and wars.

    Antony Otieno Ong'ayo
    International Development Studies
    Utrecht University

  6. Dear Hein,
    A very interesting comment, but with all my due respect .... Let me disagree on a few points.

    Indeed, the facts that you are raising are all pertinent and true. However, Europeans are not yet "massively" moving to Africa, as you are saying, these are just single cases still. And these few Europeans are going mostly to very few countries, such as Morocco or Mozambique, as you highlighted. Those countries are quite specific, are not they? Morocco is technically African, but I would rather differentiate here MENA and Africa as it's important in the context.

    There are still not many Europeans who would go to Nigeria or Ethiopia. And even those who do, would go to the capital cities to grab the jobs offered by multinationals - mostly - or very few rich local families. But all of this is still very marginal. The African out-migration is still high, and if you look at the net numbers, emigration from Africa is still much higher than immigration to Africa (and of course within African trends are very important).

    I guess what you are pointing out is the overall effect of globalization and of African development that we would have seen in any case these days, and will definitely see more of it in the future. Countries like Morocco are advanced in their demographic transition which implies that the societies are maturing, and all forms of mobility exchanges become pertinent, including the skilled migrants. The examples that you gave are striking because they come out during the crisis; they are somewhat aggravated by the crisis; but as a trend, I guess we would have seen this coming one day or the other in any case. In fact, we have already seen this with Europeans going to Asia and Latin America before the crisis.

    An issue that you are not mentioning here is that among those who go to Africa, a lot are actually a first or second generation African (Magreb) migrants to Europe, who nowadays prefer going back to their origin countries. There, not only they can have more chances to find a job, but also capitalize on their European experience and face less discrimination and prejudice. These individuals are quite different from ethnic Europeans who have never been to Africa before and do not speak a word of local languages, even though statistically they are “Europeans”.

    What the crisis also shows is that “economically driven” migration is more important than other forms of migration, that it is more flexible, and that it indeed greases the wheels of an economy, as it works as a margin of adjustment for labour markets: there will always be people here and there willing to consider a move to grasp an opportunity if there is none in their countries. Unfortunately, the governments do not get this point, here I agree. If opportunities rise in Arctica tomorrow, there will be people from all over the world willing to go there. So “With migration, always expect the unexpected” – well, it is not at all unexpected for me to see this; but perhaps indeed in our societies not enough emphasis is put on the value of such economic adjustments through migration opportunities. Let all unemployed of the world be free to move where they can be used and have a job ! :)

    Anyhow, I sincerely enjoyed reading your post, but I would love seeing more research rather than a documentray-based discussion....

    Kind wishes,

  7. Hein, very informative, thanks. As someone who lives in Africa (although South Africa is often not considered as "Africa proper") I can tell you why it is that you see Europeans coming here in lean times, whilst the locals are still leaving for Europe. It's all to do with skills. The vast majority of Africans have little if any skills and since Africa is experiencing economic growth due to mining, agriculture and paralell industry, it requires a high level of skill to maintain these. On the other hand you have the locals who are seeking a better life, given their lack of skill. Unfortunately African leaders are not big on upliftment of their people, which extends to education, obviously. I agree with one of the respondents above that you'll see a reversal of this trend once Europe starts recovering, but Africa will still remain a growth point, for the simple reason that it is rich in natural resources. One thing will remain true: Here in Africa, anyone with advanced skills in most fields, will have a competitive advantage in the job market and as entrepreneur, over the majority of locals. A good place to be in terms of one's career! Keep an eye out for my soon to be launched website, called

  8. I am actually doing a comparison on the life experiences of African Migrants in Europe and European migrants in Africa for my PhD thesis. The first thing I noticed was that there was a lack of focus on this subject as well. So if you guys also have ideas on further great literature review that I could read or should look at let me know.



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