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Nobody wants to be an immigrant: Compassionate locals must understand what drives migration


Dr Maruping Phepheng is an author and scholar of the African immigrant and human mobility. His Twitter handle is @MP_Author.

A compassionate local man would surely understand that home needs to be a deep dark hole of intense suffocation for anyone to decide to leave: no one really wants to leave home for the sake of it, no immigrant wants to be an immigrant.

Let’s face it — immigration and transnational mobility in Africa is mostly a reflection of the continent’s socio‐economic dynamics over time. Apart from push factors, like intense conflicts, human rights abuses, poverty and famine, in great part immigration is a function of external pull factors.

People, unemployed and starved, are eager to try their luck in countries perceived to have more opportunities. Despite the risks involved many struggle, some illegally, to reach these countries of opportunity.

This, in turn, results in the brewing of disquiet among the locals in the receiving country, especially when resources are already inadequate to provide for the citizens. This is the reason why, in South Africa, you have movements like #PutSouthAfricaFirst.

But what then becomes the role of the compassionate local man? What should be shaping his ideas and approach in the face of the unavoidable influx, especially if his country is seen to be a place of opportunity by the immigrant?

In spite of his fears (one of them is that the very same conditions the immigrant fled when he left his home might prevail in his country if nothing is done by the powers that be) he understands, the compassionate local man, that surely, surely, home needs to be a deep dark hole of intense suffocation for anyone to decide to leave.

So the compassionate local man in the receiving country also understands that it must have been a difficult choice — was it a choice? — to leave a place, without which you have no background, in order to settle in a place that might reject you, and so the compassionate local man in the receiving country exercises compassion in all the ways that he handles the immigrant. He accommodates him, shares the little he has with him, and helps him set up. This he does because he understands, the compassionate local man, that if they both prospered under these difficult conditions they would have prospered not only for themselves but for both their countries too.

The compassion with which the local man treats the immigrant does not mean that the dynamics existing in the immigrant’s home country escape him. For example, the compassionate local man, even in his generosity towards the immigrant, might be an unemployed graduate who struggles to get state help to set up a business to provide for himself and his loved ones. The local man is aware that the health services in his country are wanting because those in power do not have their priorities right. He is aware that the wrath suffered by the immigrant because people are disgruntled and disillusioned is in fact the wrath that should be aimed at those who are responsible for the disgruntlement and disillusionment — the government.

He is aware, the compassionate local man, of the socio-political specifics blistering the immigrant’s home country, and he houses him precisely because he understands this.

He is amazed, the compassionate local man, at the tough time meted out to the fellow African by other Africans who are his compatriots. He does not understand how it can be that an educated and conscious person would not have come across the news — a newspaper article, a news clip on TV, a poem, a novel, a song, something, that explains the hardships that immigrants had to escape in their home countries. He does not understand how Pan-Africanism is not embraced by the significantly knowledgeable youth (or is the youth falsely accused of being significantly knowledgeable? Have they even come across Pan-Africanism? If so, have they misunderstood it?).

He is amazed too, the compassionate local man who is not xenophobic, that there does not seem to be a meeting of minds between the locals and the immigrant to come together and demand that SADC intervenes decisively in countries that cause intensified mobility precisely because their countries are mismanaged.

The compassionate local man watches with concern as roadblocks are set up to sniff out illegal immigrants, as borders are closed to discourage free human mobility.

He understands why crimes committed by immigrants are centred and marked for urgent attention (and political expediency), even though he wishes crime would be punished regardless of the origin of the criminal. He appreciates what the influx of immigrants does to the already pressed social services like health and education but wonders whether, in reality, the host country would be better off without the immigrant. Would the nurse at the local clinic be better committed and compassionate to the locals simply because she does not have to service the immigrant? He wonders too if the system would be more efficient — would the clinic’s dispensary be stocked such that no one is returned home unassisted simply and only because the immigrant has left?

He appreciates, the local man, that to point all anger at the immigrant is not to see the problem in its correct perspective. He appreciates that the immigrant is not responsible for the porous borders and the corrupt officials manning them. He appreciates that the opportunity to open and operate a salon or a tuck shop is open to all, and that the entrepreneurial immigrant is not evil simply because he is entrepreneurial. 

The local man appreciates that the political landscape in, say, Zimbabwe, is a violent mismatch between a mighty state and the weak that oppose it, and therefore appreciates that the immigrant is not the snoring SADC or the frail AU, organisations that should be intervening there in the interest of the people.

He knows, the compassionate local man, perhaps having enjoyed Cathy Battistessa’s Une Nouvelle Humanite, that what we all need right now is a new kind of human race, and so he wonders why many do not seem to understand that immigrants engage in mobility in order to remain alive; that immigrants are compelled to be immigrants. He wonders why many do not seem to fathom the nervous condition the immigrant finds herself in.

He is a troubled soul, the compassionate local man, for he does not understand why it is not clear like daylight that no one really wants to leave home for the sake of it; that no immigrant wants to be an immigrant.

He is indeed troubled, the compassionate local man. DM


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  • Steven Burnett says:

    It’s hard to be an immigrant. Simply by definition, to be able to move yourself to another country in order to improve your own and family circumstances, you are an ambitious and resourceful person. Someone who adds value to the place they live in. Immigrants need to be celebrated.

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