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Migration: The push of landless poverty and the pull of transnational trade

Michael Schmidt is an experienced field reporter, with a reputation for producing unique and challenging copy, having worked for 19 years on some of South Africa's leading print titles including ThisDay and Sunday Times before going into journalism training in 2008. He has worked across Africa, Central and South America and elsewhere. He has an interest in extra-parliamentary politics, and conflict reporting in transitional societies. He is a non-fiction author, published in Germany (2008), the USA (2009, 2013), Brazil (2009), and Quebec (2012). He is currently working on six more books, including Drinking With Ghosts: the Aftermath of Apartheid's Dirty War (South Africa, 2014), and a multimedia project on massacre and memory, with Lebanese writer Rasha Salti. He founded the Professional Journalists' Association of South Africa (ProJourn), and The Ulu Club for Southern African Conflict Journalists. Currently the boss at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism (IAJ), he continues to write for both the mainstream and alternative media.

In the globalised post-Soviet world, migration by tourists, investors, job-seekers, students, traders, asylum-seekers and trafficked people is one of the key shapers of socio-political change, provoking the rise of xenophobic political parties in Europe and murderous attacks on foreigners in Africa – but policymakers are often not creatively engaging with the issues while many journalists caricature migrants only as forlorn beggars.

Since 2000, some 40,000 immigrants have died en route to what they had hoped would be an improved life in Europe, according to statistics released on Tuesday [30/9/2014] by the 156-country International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Yet the new European Union rescue plan, to take the place of the hard-pressed Italian Mare Nostrum operation, looks set to be a shadow of that country’s brave humanitarian efforts.

It is a divisive issue. With Somalis escaping poverty and Syrians fleeing civil war paying traffickers $1,500 a head to cram into overloaded boats and risk mass drowning in the mercurial Mediterranean in order to reach the safety of a displaced person’s camp in Italy, some argue that offering migrants safe haven sponsors human trafficking.

Countries such as Israel, Morocco and the US have gone so far as to build walls to keep migrants out. But with no wall high enough and no government policy stern enough to work as an effective deterrent, at any one time there are some 215-million migrants on the move, of whom it is estimated one in eight are youths aged between 15 to 24, and of whom 48% are women – the groups most vulnerable to human predators.

According to the World Social Forum on Migrations (WSFM), which will be hosting an estimated 4,000 delegates for its sixth global summit at the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto campus over 5-8 December, South Africa is the recipient of the highest number of immigrants from Africa and Asia, with perhaps seven to 10 million migrants currently in the country – though exact figures are hard to determine.

It was pointed out at the WSFM’s press conference on Monday by SABC Channel Africa veteran journalist, Izak Khomo, that many of those migrants were not only job-seekers, but investors and business people. “They come here to purchase spares, or food and move them back home in big trucks… They are even flying beef into Kinshasa now… Billions are involved; it is big business, but the media doesn’t focus on this aspect of migration.”

Jean-Pierre Lukamba, vice-chairman of the African Diaspora Forum (ADF), agreed. “South Africa is a pole of attraction on the continent,” he said, adding “Migrants play a major role in skills-transfer and investment,” not to mention that the remittances they send home often outweigh their home countries’ GDP.

Khomo, in a debate with Marc Gbaffou, chairman of the ADF, formed in the wake of the 2008 pogroms that left 21 South Africans and 42 foreigners dead, and representing 35 African migrant communities, discussed the complexities of the stresses of immigrant life, noting that in Johannesburg, Mozambican expat communities had even fought each other, the settled migrants calling the new arrivals kwerekwere, a pejorative for foreigner.

Xenophobia’ among South Africa’s underclass, it was agreed, was largely a smoke-screen for turf wars between entrepreneurs for control of finite urban resources, for the settling of private scores, and for mafioso whose tentacles penetrate all aspects of life, from street trading and taxi routes to managing football clubs and bands.

It is the first time the summit is being held on African soil and Khomo made the point that journalists and policymakers needed to interrogate why “60% of the world’s arable land is on this continent, yet people are running away from a resource that will sustain them”.

He suggested that land grabbing, combined with the granting by governments of 99-year leases to entities that forcibly evicted indigenous populations, created the poverty that was the major driver of migration, including internal migration to overwhelmed cities. “In Liberia, 80% of the arable land has been taken away… It’s an absolute scandal; African governments should be held to account and the media needs to grasp these issues of socio-economic justice,” Khomo said.

I was asked in an interview by Khomo’s colleague Patricia Koumba whether South Africa, which has a rather shoddy track record of police and petty officialdom abusing asylum-seekers, and with its reputation besmirched by the 2008 pogroms, was an ideal venue for the WSFM summit.

I replied that while it would have been nice to host the summit as a country that could boast immaculate best practice in the field of human rights and migration, this provided us with an opportunity to face our prejudices head-on and to recover our ubuntu.

I got involved in the WSFM in part because I represent the project to convince the Cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town (and the university towns of Stellenbosch and Grahamstown) to come on board the International Cities of Refuge Network (Icorn), a non-profit network of 43 cities that have agreed to provide safe haven for persecuted journalists and writers. The project was launched in Joburg in May and in Cape Town in July, so the timing of the WSFM is perfect.

As Icorn ‘guest writers’, these people often represent the best and brightest of their country’s generation – and add immeasurably to the intellectual capital of their host cities. Icorn works alongside similar organisations that assist threatened artists and academics, so together, the three organisations try to preserve the cultural and intellectual resources of countries and communities under stress by rapacious regimes or murderous mafia.

Forced migration forms one of the four thematic pillars of the WSFM summit, the others being social cohesion and integration of migrants, globalisation and trends in migration (including how climate change shapes movements), and the combating of xenophobia and human trafficking.

Regarding xenophobia, Gbaffou suggested that South Africa still has far to go. Comparing the national outpouring of grief and rage over the Marikana Massacre which left 34 miners dead in 2012 and which resulted in the ongoing Farlam Commission of Inquiry, to the government’s fiddle-while-Rome-burns attitude during the 2008 pogroms, he said, “63 died, but nobody went to court, nobody was condemned and nobody was convicted.”

He also accused the host city of Johannesburg, in its attempts to curb out-of-control street trading as in last year’s Operation Clean Sweep (simply kicking them off the pavements), of “struggling to come up with a clear plan to deal with street trading”, hinting that this policy chaos encouraged inter-group strife.

Reverend Thomas René, chairman of the Johannesburg Migrant Advice Panel (JMAP), which counsels the city’s metro mayor and his migrant council on issues related to the various diaspora, said the City had tried hard to deal with the issues at hand, but was swamped by the problems of internally displaced populations from rural South Africa. Khomo said that such internal migration was caused by “the collapse of rural black agrarian existence… Forget land reform, we need agrarian reform to get small-scale farming working again”. DM

? The WSFM runs from 5-8 December 2014. Registration is open to any interested individual or organisation. Michael Schmidt represents the Icorn South Africa Project among the organisers, and via the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, is assisting the WSFM with its media engagements.


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