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Against crisis narratives: Return migration to Africa

Despite popular imaginaries in the global north, there are no archetypal migrants, writes Emma Abotsi.

5 to 6 minute read

An aeroplane taking off at sunset from Kotaka International Airport in Accra, Ghana

The dominant image of mobility between Africa and Europe is of ‘migration crisis’. Suspicion of Africans is expressed in the form of strict visa requirements and border force procedures for people attempting to enter Europe through the prescribed ‘legal routes’. It is reflected in European governments, independently and via the EU, spending billions on border externalisation ‘initiatives’ to severely restrict the movement of Africans unable to access legal routes. They exploit African land and resources while funding overseas detention centres rife with abuse and coastguard operations such as the EU’s ‘Operation Sophia’ from 2015 to 2020, which sought to board, search, seize and divert boats leaving the Libyan coast towards Europe.

These discourses, policies and practices are informed by and reproduce a general narrative where nearly all Africans moving to Europe are framed as ‘irregular migrants’, both fleeing and representing ‘crisis’. They follow long-established racist logics rooted in colonialism. Anti-blackness compels European governments’ preoccupation with controlling the movement of Africans.

Other forms of mobility to and from the continent, such as choices of return migration by the African diaspora, receive far less attention. My research on the transnational parenting and educational strategies of British-Ghanaian families, for example, reveals more complex realities of migration. Such experiences highlight alternative narratives to the dominant ‘crisis’ image while also challenging popular imaginaries of Europe (and the global north in general) as the place for prosperity for all.

The pursuit of success

Many of the British-Ghanaian parents from my research, conducted in south-east England and southern Ghana, shared a sense of anxiety over ensuring the future success of their children. Take, for example, Seth and Naomi (pseudonyms), a British-Ghanaian returnee couple. Their experiences of migration and ongoing movement between the UK and Ghana highlight the desires and aspirations that motivate people everywhere to migrate, in pursuit of ‘successful lives’.

Seth was born in London but sent to Ghana to live with his maternal grandmother when he was six months old. He returned to the UK at 13, in the mid-1980s aftermath of Jerry Rawlings’ coup d’état. Naomi was born in Ghana and moved to north London at the age of ten with her young sister and her mother, after her father moved to the UK for work. Both Seth and Naomi were educated in the UK. They had been raised to value academic attainment and were proud of their professional jobs. They wanted to ensure their children had the best educational opportunities but were concerned about their children doing well at school.

We must pay attention to experiences that counter a dominant narrative of African migration embedded in colonial logics

Their worries were well-founded. Annual analyses of GCSE results show black children among Britain’s lowest pass rates. Numerous studies have shown these outcomes are heavily influenced by structural racism within the education system. This is expressed, for example, through teachers setting lower expectations and tougher academic selection practices for black pupils and administering harsher punishments for misbehaviour, including disproportionate exclusions. Racial stereotyping of black children, particularly boys, as aggressive further contributes to teachers’ perceptions that they are ‘not suited’ to academic study. Across the UK, racism additionally circumscribes the extent to which black parents can mobilise their own educational achievements and class status to counter teacher bias.

Such challenges encourage some British-Ghanaian parents to educate their children in Ghana, either sending children there, or relocating with them during their formative years. Naomi relocated in 2013, when the children were 13 and eight. She noted that schooling in Ghana had a positive impact, particularly on lifting their teenage daughter’s aspirations to excel academically. The children’s UK school had suggested they concentrate on sports. Naomi told me: ‘I think this is generally fair to say of Ghana, I don’t know maybe Africa, but here it’s about academic excellence – that’s what I love.’

Good migrations

While their children’s education was a key aspect of the couple’s decision to move to Ghana, non-material factors also played a role. Naomi felt she had ‘hit the glass ceiling’ at work and wanted to be closer to her ageing father, who had returned to Ghana from London upon retirement. As for so many people, family ties shaped Naomi’s desire to migrate. As the children grew older, they had also increasingly asked questions that, Naomi said, ‘spoke to who they were; to their identity’. For Seth, fond memories of Ghana and aspirations for a better quality of life, or the ‘soft life’ as he put it, influenced his desire to return.

Naomi similarly imagined a blissful Ghanaian life, inspired by the popular Botswana-set No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels. There, the main character, Mma Precious Ramotswe, sits out on her veranda at the end of the day drinking bush tea. Naomi said, ‘That mental picture stayed with me for a while. I always said: “The one thing I absolutely have to do when we live in Ghana is just sit out and enjoy the breeze with a cup of bush tea” – and I do that.’

Naomi and Seth are not, of course, an archetypal couple. They have British citizenship, and their educational and professional credentials enabled them to relocate to Ghana. Many other Africans do not boast such privileges, including those currently experiencing the full force of punitive, even deadly, border control measures of various European countries.

My aim here is to show that there are no archetypal stories. We must pay attention to experiences that counter a dominant narrative of African migration embedded in colonial logics. These experiences challenge notions of Europe as a meritocratic place where anyone can prosper. They present an image of African migration that highlights dreams, imaginaries and desires of living a good life, rather than the caricature of the ‘economic migrant’ vilified (or pitied) by politicians and media outlets in the UK and beyond. This image includes, among many other stories, Africans returning to Africa in search of better lives – the very same desire that motivates people to migrate all around the world.

This article first appeared in issue #239, Spring 2023, Flight, Fight, Remain. Subscribe today to get your magazine delivered hot off the press!

Emma Abotsi is a lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London

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