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Causes and consequences of migration

Opinion & Analysis
By Eddie Cross HUMAN migration is almost always a product of conflict in one form or another; the early migrants to America were fleeing persecution of Protestant Christians in Europe. Many of the early migrants to Australia were prisoners being deported from Britain. During the Soviet era, millions of Europeans fled the pogroms that the […]

By Eddie Cross HUMAN migration is almost always a product of conflict in one form or another; the early migrants to America were fleeing persecution of Protestant Christians in Europe. Many of the early migrants to Australia were prisoners being deported from Britain. During the Soviet era, millions of Europeans fled the pogroms that the authorities unleashed on ethnic minorities. The Second World War forced millions into exile.

Migration from Zimbabwe started in earnest after independence when the Mugabe government mounted the Gukurahundi campaign against the minority tribes in the south and west of the country. Over four years, more than 1,2 million people left the country with the majority moving to South Africa, where they were simply absorbed into local communities that spoke the same languages and had the same ethnic backgrounds.

The second wave of migration started in 2000, when the Mugabe regime once again mounted a programme designed to entrench its power and punish opponents. Migration that time was reinforced by the collapse of the economy which, by 2008 was in dire straits. Over this period, I estimate that approximately five million adults left the country for what they regarded as being greener pastures. The majority migrated to South Africa because of its proximity and the cultural similarities, but there were significant movements of people to other English-speaking parts of the world including the United Kingdom, US, Canada and Australia.

Mainly as a consequence of this migration, the population of Zimbabwe today is probably around 14 million. At the time of independence, when our population growth rate was about 3,6% per annum, this would have meant that our population today should have been well in excess of 30 million with the population doubling every 20 years or so. The very sharp decline in our population growth rate has been due to many factors and these include the reduction in life expectancy, migration and a higher death rate. It is also possible that the birth rate has been declining with growing urbanisation.

These demographic movements are dramatic in themselves but they do not reveal the total impact of these shifts in population. The first of the adverse implications of migration on this sort of scale is that it tends to be qualitative. Migrants leaving the country of their origin are often better educated and have an entrepreneurial character and, therefore, a disproportionate importance to the economy they are leaving and the impact on the economy of the country to which they are migrating.

You can readily illustrate this by the fact that estimates of the incomes of the Zimbabweans living abroad suggest that in aggregate, they are well in excess of the GDP of the country that gave them birth. This is true not only for Zimbabwe, but for many other African States who have a substantial population in the diaspora. In the Horn of Africa, the majority of the States now have more than half of their populations living abroad and remittances constitute not only the most important single source of foreign exchange but also a very substantial proportion of GDP.

The damage done to the home country by the loss of this skilled and entrepreneurial minority is very difficult to measure. However, there can be no doubt that it is extremely damaging to many poor countries. On the other hand, if the country generating migrants can be turned around and become a magnet for skills and experienced individuals, it is the diasporans that are most likely to provide these individuals. Rwanda is a prime example in Africa today and here in Zimbabwe there are early signs of the return of many individuals whose families migrated in the past but who now feel the urge to return home and apply the skills they have secured in foreign lands.

There is little doubt in my mind that countries that either do not welcome or are not attractive to migrants, such as Russia and China, will suffer from a shortage of young adults to support their economies and also lose out on the skills and other attributes which migrants bring. The United States and Europe remain magnets for migration from poorer regions of the world and continue to select migrants with qualifications and experience. With their own domestic populations growing older and a shortage of young adults to fill positions in the labour market, migration is not just a reality, it is in fact essential to their long-term prosperity.

In the case of Zimbabwe, there is little doubt that the millions of migrants who have found their way into South Africa by one means or another, are now causing significant social instability. Xenophobia is a real problem which the South African government is struggling to come to grips with. Very often the response is to simply arrest undocumented migrants and put them on trains back to Zimbabwe, where they are offloaded onto the station at Beitbridge and promptly try to return to South Africa. It must be recognised by the South African authorities that the Zimbabwean migrants in their midst are not only a source of skilled manpower in every field, but also that they fill many jobs that their own people do not really want.

Visitors to South Africa will find that more often than not, the people who serve them in restaurants or at filling stations, will be Zimbabweans. The vast farms which produce the bulk of South African food, are often staffed by Zimbabwean migrants. Generally speaking, they are more entrepreneurial than their South African counterparts and, therefore, find themselves starting small businesses in high-density areas which further stimulates xenophobia.

I have little sympathy for the South Africans because, when we needed their influence to halt the excesses of the Mugabe regime, the South African government ignored the deepening crisis north of the Limpopo and now suffers the consequences. It must be recognised within the region that it has never been possible to secure progressive change in Zimbabwe without South African pressure and influence.

If regional States want to see the plague of migration from Zimbabwe come to an end, they should work with us to secure growth and development. I have no doubt that if Africa is to succeed in pulling its populations out of absolute poverty and become a continent with a growing middle class, we simply have no choice but to work together. No country in Africa is an island except for Madagascar and Mauritius, the rest of us have neighbours and to a very large extent our individual prosperity depends on how we work together to achieve progress.

Instability in one country is a problem for all of us. We cannot, therefore, stand aside when we see Al Shabab destabilising northern Mozambique. The landlocked States of southern Africa depend on the ports of the coastal States for access to global markets and if they become unreliable for one reason or another, then we all feel the consequences. When South African mobs wrecked much of the commercial infrastructure of Natal including the port of Durban, or when xenophobic mobs burn Zimbabwean trucks on the main highways, these are issues which should concern all of us. The same applies to Renamo ambushing vehicles on roads in central Mozambique.

One thing that I am personally totally convinced of is that our prosperity and progress does not depend on foreign governments but on our own initiative and enterprise. The future is very much in our hands and we need our people in the diaspora to help us achieve these goals.

  • Eddie Cross is an economist and former Bulawayo South legislator. He writes here in his personal capacity.