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Why Gambian Migrants Are Giving up on Their “China Dream”

They did not know very much about China but they had heard it was the world’s second largest economy and Africa’s leading trading partner, so they assumed there must be opportunity. Europe, of course, was their first choice but with EU countries overwhelmed by migrants and cracking down on smugglers, China would have to do. Lured by deceptive visa brokers, hundreds, possibly thousands of young Gambian men leveraged everything they had to pay for the long journey from Banjul to Guangzhou.

The brokers told them it would be easy to find work and make thousands of dollars to send back to their needy families in The Gambia. With few other viable options at home, these men, and they were all men, discovered almost immediately upon arrival in Guangzhou they had been lied to and they had made a dreadful mistake. Contrary to what they were led to believe, work was very hard to come by, particularly in a country where they could not speak the language. The high cost of living in China’s major cities also quickly drained the little money they came with. Soon, these migrants would be alone and destitute with no work, no money and the shame of having to admit to their families that they had failed.

China, for its part, does not make it easy for African migrants. After years of lax enforcement, Chinese authorities are now regularly conducting immigration checks in migrant communities and detaining those who have overstayed their visas. African migrants also report considerable difficulties assimilating into Chinese society due to widespread discrimination against black people.

One of the many letters sent to loved ones from struggling Gambian migrants in China.

Now, more and more Gambian migrants are giving up on their “China Dream” and doing whatever they can to head home. This new trend of reverse migration from China is also known as “U-Turning” and was recently documented by a pair of European scholars as part of an independent online multimedia research project.

Dr. Heidi Østbø Haugen of the University of Oslo and Manon Diederich, a Phd candidate at the University of Cologne in Germany, interviewed dozens of Gambian migrants to document their stories and learn more about the difficulties they faced both at home and in China. Heidi and Manon join Eric & Cobus to discuss their digital project “U-Turn Asia.”

Show Notes:

About Heidi Østbø Haugen:

EpgGTr-NDr. Heidi Østbø Haugen is one of the foremost specialists studying Africans in China. After earning her PhD in Human Geography from the University of Oslo, she is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the same university, and much of her research focuses on West African migrants in Guangzhou. She previously worked for the United Nations World Food Programme in West Africa between 2006 and 2008, and before that in the Department of Research of the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research.

About Manon Diederich:

csm_Manon_Homepage_c7bc50383bManon Diederich is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology at the University of Cologne and the co-creator of the U-Turn Asia multimedia research project that documents the reverse migration trends of Gambians in China. In her current research, “Longing to Become. On Gendered Identities and Mobilities Between Senegal, Gambia and China,” Diederich aims to trace the social implications of Senegalese and Gambians’ lives between China and their countries/locales of origin. Social categories such as gender, generation, nationality and socio-economic background are important factors influencing her informants’ conceptions of themselves as social actors in the translocal context they are living in.

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