Podcast | The difficulties African migrants face when setting up a new home
We document Fana’s story. He started a new life in France after going on a dangerous journey from Guinea. But like many immigrants faced hurdles once he arrived in the country such as sorting out the proper documentation, meeting new friends, and finding a job. Those tasks are even more difficult when you are Black.
In this episode, Khopotso Bodibe has a conversation with a South African lawyer and rights activist Sharon Ekambaram and Julie Kleinman, a US anthropologist and author of the book “Adventure Capital Migration and the Making of an African Hub in Paris”.
About Cry Like a Boy
Cry Like a Boy is an original Dailyrater series and podcast that explores how the pressure to be ‘a man’ can harm families and entire societies. Stay with us as we travel across the African continent to meet men who are defying centuries-old gender stereotypes and redefining their roles as men.
The podcast is available in French under the name “Dans la tête des Hommes”.
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TOUNKAN NAMO IN GUINEA: LIVING ABROAD – TRANSCRIPT
Khopotso Bodibe: Welcome to Cry Like a Boy, a Dailyrater original series and podcast that explores how the pressure to be ‘a man’ can be harmful, and how men can step up to help in achieving gender equality. Stay with us as we travel across the African continent to meet the men who defy centuries-old stereotypes.
In the previous episodes, we explored the pressure on some Guinean men and boys to risk their lives on the Mediterranean migration route in order to climb up the social ladder and prove that they are real heroes of their families.
Today we are joined by Sharon Ekambaram, a human rights activist based in Johannesburg, South Africa. We also speak to Julie Kleinman, author of the book, “Adventure Capital: Migration and the Making of an African Hubb in Paris”, based in Bamako, Mali, to discuss the importance of social connections when you’re trying to make a new country your home. I am Khopotso Bodibe, with you from Johannesburg. Hello to you.
If you haven’t heard the documentary episodes of our Guinean series, we invite you to do so by visiting our website.
You will meet two Guinean men Mamadou and Fana, who each embarked on a dangerous migration route they call “the adventure” from Africa to Europe – with one crucial difference: Mamadou failed and Fana made it to France. Each had to deal with stigma and overcome many obstacles, but they both became a hero in their adventure.
Before starting our conversation, let me introduce my guests.
Sharon Ekambaram is the Head of the Refugee & Migrant Rights Programme at the Lawyers for Human Rights in South Africa. The programme makes sure the asylum seekers and refugees have easily available legal advice. Sharon is also working to combat xenophobia through engagement and education at community level.
Julie Kleinman is an urban anthropologist at Fordham University, NYC. Her research is centered around France and francophone West Africa. Julie’s book, “Adventure Capital: Migration and the Making of an African Hub in Paris”, examines how West African migrants adapt to their new homes and find ways to reach social and economic success as state institutions fail to help them.
Hi, Julie. Hi, Sharon. Thank you so much for joining us here on the Cry Like a Boy podcast.
Julie Kleinman: Thank you so much for having us.
Sharon Ekambaram: Thank you very much.
Khopotso Bodibe: Let’s start with you, Sharon. Sharon, last year here in Johannesburg, South Africa, was dealing with the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. We yet again witnessed calls for migrants to be deported and the government to take action against crimes allegedly committed by people born outside of South Africa, specifically migrants of African origin and to some extent, Asians.
These incidents keep flaring up now and now and again. Why do you think such xenophobic outbreaks happen?
Sharon Ekambaram: Your litany of events, of outbreaks of xenophobia, I would say happens on an ongoing basis. We saw violence in 2016, in 2015. And I think, you know, there’s no simple answer. I think the first point to underscore in what you just said is that it is predominantly targeting black African brothers and sisters from the continent coming to our country.
I think the second point I want to make very broadly is that this, unfortunately, is in keeping with a global trend of scapegoating of migrants, whether it’s in Europe or whether it’s in America, whether it’s in Australia. And unfortunately, South Africa has followed in exactly the same trend of forms of xenophobia, Islamophobia of othering. It is basically to detract from the failures of states in policy implementation. And I think the crisis in our country is that we continue to be one of the most unequal societies in the world. And that compounds when migrants are blamed for taking the jobs for all the myths that are spread by particularly politicians. This, unfortunately, fuels the kind of xenophobia that you’ve described to us.
Khopotso Bodibe: Sharon, you have just said that the xenophobia that actually plays out points to the failures of states to actually handle the situation. Is there anything we can do about this?
Sharon Ekambaram: Very simplistically, we do need to debunk those comments, we don’t have floods of migrants coming into our country. We have, according to stats, essays, and most recent figures, there’s been a drastic drop in the number of international migrants coming into our country. And I want to just go back to that point of international migrants.
So we have about three million migrants in South Africa. We have about 180 000 asylum seekers, people waiting for over 10 to 15 years to have their claim for refugee protection granted by our asylum system. And we have about 90 000 refugees recognised. Now, that figure of 90 000 has been the same for the last six to 10 years. We have not recognised any more refugees. I think the first point to make then is our asylum system is in crisis.
The second related problem, and these are the facts that need to be mentioned when we have South Africans bemoaning the number of foreign nationals in our country and all the problems, whether it’s our failing health system, public health system, whether it’s our education system, whether it’s the unemployment crisis in our country, we blame the foreign nationals.
But what we also are not doing and I think this is an important point, we have no proper disaggregated data on the movement of people, whether this is an internal movement of people coming from other provinces or whether it’s people coming from across the borders, coming into our country and what form that movement is.
My experience and experience of organisations like Lawyers for Human Rights, like Doctors Without Borders, is that a lot of the movement is circular, saw people come to our country to buy goods, to contribute to our economy, and they want to go back home. But because we are not providing relevant documentation, we are not managing movement from the perspective of the rights in our Constitution, respect for human dignity, respect for human rights, and this constant infringement because as a country and as a government, we have criminalised movement of people.
Khopotso Bodibe: And I see that a lot is actually happening with people coming from neighbouring Zimbabwe who come in and out of the country to buy goods and services, which actually helps the economy of the country. Now, let’s just move on to another part of our conversation here, and this is where I will bring you in. Julie. Xenophobia affects all sectors of migrant communities, men, women, and children. But does it affect men and women differently? And how does it affect children? And what are the impacts both in the short and long term?
Julie Kleinman: I think in terms of xenophobia, we have to think about where we’re talking about it from. As Sharon was mentioning, it’s a problem that exists across the world. And I think in all of these places, of course, the policy on migration will be driven by certain kinds of xenophobic narratives. And those narratives and the policies that they help support will have, in some cases, extremely deleterious effects for migrants.
So this is clearly the case in the US right now in terms of the children who are being separated from their parents at the borders in great numbers. And because of the desperation of many of those migrants, those children are being detained. So I think that is in part one of the most dramatic examples of how these xenophobic narratives that support migration policy can have an impact on children.
In terms of the difference between how it affects men and women. One of the things that is clear, I think, from a lot of what the podcast has been looking at is that the way that men in West Africa seek to come of age is often through migration and that migration, maybe to Europe. It may be to the US, but it’s most frequently to other parts of Africa. And unfortunately, in many of those parts of Africa, South Africa, but also Congo and Angola, where many West African migrants migrate, there’s also increasing xenophobia and policies against migrants that seek to make their lives very difficult.
And thus their hope for what migration would achieve is frustrated. And they are not able to become men as they hope to and become seen as successful men in their communities because of the kinds of migration policy supported by xenophobia and for the treatment that they receive.
In terms of how it affects women differently. I think in many ways, women are facing similar problems to what men are facing in that they also seek to support their families, support struggling communities affected by drought in West Africa when they migrate to Europe or to elsewhere in Africa. And they often are working in their work positions as nannies, as caretakers for elders, and other positions where they have very precarious employment.
I think xenophobia has become a political currency. And because of that, women are forced to take very precarious employment, often with disadvantaged conditions, and they don’t have access to the kinds of employment that they might hope for.
Their risk for deportation is perhaps less than men’s risk for deportation simply because they’re stopped by the police. However, they nonetheless face incredible difficulty in trying to get health care, access to benefits, access to basic rights, and oftentimes work in very unfavourable conditions, but in absolutely necessary positions of care work in European economies.
Khopotso Bodibe: Sharon, what are your observations with regard to the same question issue that I have raised?
Sharon Ekambaram: I think the point that that’s just been made with respect to policy is critical. We have often framed the way in which migration is managed in our country as a clear form of institutionalised xenophobia. We see the Department of Home Affairs, the manner in which the South African police services carries out its responsibilities, enforcing policy. And similarly, immigration officers are basically, you know, well breaking the law.
In many instances, the policy is not respected. And, you know, unfortunately, what we actually see is a very frightening similarity with some of the practises of the apartheid state, very similar to the past and the way people are hounded to show their documentation, to confirm whether their stay has been regularised through documentation.
The reports have indicated that the conditions of detention are shocking and that I think there are other related problems of access to basic rights like education, access to hospitals. People are being denied because they don’t have proper documentation.
The shocking thing is that the framing is still very much around race. You don’t have this problem in Central and which is predominantly a white part of our country. I think those are the kinds of things that we need to be understanding in our response to the state in exposing its opportunism in using this issue of migration to deflect from, as I said, its failure to ensure that there are decent jobs. We’ve had a chronic basis of employment for over a decade now if not more systemic unemployment. 50 percent of our young people are unemployed, and yet we blame foreign nationals for this.
Khopotso Bodibe: Julie, if I can come back to you again in your book, Adventure Capital, Migration and the Making of an African Hub in Paris, you explore how migrants from West Africa create links within their communities, but also with people in the host society where they get to. How important are the links that they create? Would you say that people become a resource?
Julie Kleinman: Absolutely, I think the links they’re creating with people from the host society, with other migrants in the host society, that those kinds of social network building are absolutely key to the way that they envision their potential success and the way that they try to get by under these very difficult conditions created by migration policy. That’s very restrictive.
So by creating and widening their social networks, which they see as a key part of their journey of migration, they are able to create potential value for themselves. They are able to find jobs in some cases through these connexions jobs that they wouldn’t have been able to find otherwise. They’re able to learn about what are the techniques and skills that migrants facing these difficult conditions need by broadening their social networks. These become a huge resource for them, given the fact that in so many ways the state has also failed migrants, just as it failed its citizens, as Sharon was mentioning.
Khopotso Bodibe: Now, xenophobia is a global phenomenon, as we have been discussing throughout this conversation. Migrants are often seen as less smart or less strong or less capable in some societies. How do these attitudes affect migrant communities? If I can just stay with you for a moment here, Julie.
Julie Kleinman: These discourses, I think, affect them in two ways, primarily, one, the first way that it affects them is through the policy. I think that that’s the most important way is through the fact that it’s hard for them to get legal status, which is what they seek. It’s hard for them to get decent conditions and rights, workers’ rights on a job because they’re worried about their legal status.
It’s also very difficult for them to leave. Many migrants would like to go home when there’s no job available and they’re unable to go home because they don’t have legal status. And they worry that if they were to go home, they would not be able to come back. Because what’s perhaps the unintended consequence of these migrant policies is that migrants would like to leave and they’re unable to and they end up staying longer and longer in these precarious positions in the host society.
And, of course, the other way that this sort of xenophobia, fear of migrants affects them is through the way that their communities are policed, especially for men and especially for black men in Europe. Black men, for example, it has been shown, are for eight or nine times more likely to be stopped on a random identity controller check of one’s papers than if you are white. And this is extremely likely, if you’re young and black, that you will be stopped by the police.
And of course, if you’re stopped by the police and you’re undocumented, then you risk deportation, which is a very difficult experience for migrants. So that’s another way in which the stigmatisation of migrants and specifically the rate, the racist xenophobia that targets black people and especially black men with policing leads to very deleterious outcomes, also potentially violent encounters with the police.
Khopotso Bodibe: Indeed. Now, let’s wrap up this conversation with you, Sharon, your thoughts on this particular question. What are they?
Sharon Ekambaram: Look, I think, you know, migration and movement of people has been part of humanity, the human race since its origins, and we what we are witnessing and I think it’s it’s really made this point, is that this is the phenomenon of xenophobia and othering is coming in an era when there is predominant movement from the South to the North.
So the racism that goes with that, Islamophobia and all the other forms of othering, you know, in our country, we are seeing increasing trends of homophobia where people are fleeing because of fear of persecution, because of their sexual orientation. The quality of decision-making is so shocking in it’s informed by homophobic attitudes. So I think that there must be a major movement to internationalise this notion of movement and of human beings that are, you know, the rise of very reactionary nationalistic tendencies is contributing to this.
I think one way in which we can do it, for example, is to have a set visa that regularises movement in the region. We have it in West Africa. It is functioning. We don’t see any negative consequences for that. In fact, there’s a contribution to development. And my final point, which I think we have to put a lot of pressure on our government, is to provide proper disaggregated data.
Khopotso Bodibe: Thank you to the both of you, Julie and Sharon, for your thoughts on this very important subject. Thank you for joining us here on Cry Like a Boy.
Sharon Ekambaram: Thank you very much.
This show has been produced with me, Khopotso Bodibe, Makeme Bamba in Conakry, Guinea, Naira Davlashyan, Marta Rodríguez-Martinez, Lillo Montalto Monella, Mame Peya Diaw in Lyon, France, Arwa Barkallah in Dakar, Senegal.
Special thanks go to Lory Martinez, Clizia Sala and Studio Ochenta for helping us produce this podcast. Theme by Gabriel Dalmasso.
Our editor-in-chief is Yasir Khan.
I would like to thank our guests Sharon Ekambaram and Julie Kleinman. For more information on Cry Like a Boy, a Dailyrater original series and podcast, go to Dailyrater.com to find opinion pieces, videos and articles on the topic.
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