South-South Mobility and Transnational Migration

My current research centers on South-South mobility and migrant transnationalism. With its focus on mobility within the Global South, this project challenges the emphasis on South-North migration prevailing in academic and policy-related research. Regionally, I focus on the transnational connections between Africa, the Gulf States, and China. Thematically, I am interested in the particularities and incentives of these new migration routes; the ways in which migrants respond to and shape changing economic and regulatory environments; and how their experiences feed back into practices and discourses back home. I started this research in 2007 with a collaborative project on local perspectives on transnational migration from Cameroon together with colleagues and students of the University of Yaoundé 1. Subsequently, I conducted fieldwork on entrepreneurial migration from Cameroon to Gabon, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates. In recent years, I have extended my purview to China to study migrant responses to China's changing immigration law and policy, with a focus on African migrants in Guangzhou.
In recent years, I have shifted my focus back to Cameroon and have been studying the effects of return migration as well as local discourses on high risk migration and trafficking in persons.

Global African Entrepreneurs (2007-2014)

In Cameroon, as in many parts of Africa, international migration is a relevant topic and has inspired local visions of a better future. While Western countries have long featured as preferred destinations, many Cameroonians have turned to alternative destinations in the Global South, both out of choice and necessity. Popular destinations today are countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, many of which offer economic incentives and relatively easy accessibility.

Bushfallers Creek
Wall-painting in a bar in Idenao, south-west Cameroon

While being attractive in different ways, not all destinations enjoy the same reputation. The popular term “bushfaller”, as indicated in the above picture, refers to a successful migrant who “made it” and now leads a good life in the West or any place associated with prosperity and modernity. For example, within the African continent South Africa may count as “bush”; China’s position is still being debated. Moreover, reputations can change. For example, due to the frequent travels of African traders to and fro Dubai, the Gulf States have recently lost much of their allure and may now be seen as an outpost of Cameroon rather than “bush”. Yet, what has attracted African migrants to places as varied as the Gulf States, Turkey, Russia, and China are educational and economic opportunities. This has paved the way for a new category of global African entrepreneurs, as Mahir Saul and I have shown in our thematic issue African Global Entrepreneurs (UAS, 2014). Besides economic incentives, these new destinations are often characterized by migration regimes different from those in the West.

One of my regional foci has been on migration from Cameroon to the Gulf States, in particular the United Arab Emirates. Here, foreigners’ entry and stay is governed by the kafala or sponsorship system, which sanctions economic incentives but limits migrants’ rights. The kafala system has widely been portrayed – both in the media and academia – as facilitating the abuse of migrant workers. However, while there are ample examples of frustration and exploitation, there are also cases of prosperity and success. Cameroonians familiar with the system have mixed experiences and opinions. Some have made use of flexible regulations and loopholes that can make a successful stay in the Gulf States somewhat reachable and manageable.

Documentary short by Michaela Pelican and Francesco Bondanini, 14:20 min., 2014.
Portrait of a Migrant Woman: Martha in Dubai.

Migrant perspectives on Chinese immigration
law and policy (2014-2019)

Recent changes in the Chinese immigration system and how they are perceived and maneuvered by foreign migrants has been the subject of the interdisciplinary research project 'Chinese Immigration Law and Policy: Perspectives of lawmakers, administrators, and immigrants', realised in collaboration with Prof. Dr. Björn Ahl (Department of Chinese Studies, University of Cologne). The project is part of the international research consortium 'Immigration in China' , headed by Prof. Dr. Frank Pieke.
Our project 'Chinese Immigration Law and Policy' investigates the social dynamics and outcomes of the implementation of the new exit-entry law of 2012 by studying the actions of state and non-state actors, including legislators, administrators, and (im)migrants. It focuses on two sites: Beijing where the national legislator is located, and Guangzhou as a centre of commerce and foreign - in particular African - (im)migration. On my part, I engage with the following questions: How does the new exit-entry law impact on African migrants, including traders, business people, and students? How do they view and respond to the law's implementation which varies in different locations? How do African migrants relate their experiences in China to discourses on migration and citizenship in other destinations and/or in their home countries?

My focus on African migrants in China has been complemented by the following doctoral research projects (under my supervision):
  • Yang Zhou: Intercultural marriage, legal status and social belonging in China: Chinese-African couples and families in Guangzhou (completed July 2017)
  • Séverin Kaji: Student Migration from Cameroon to China: Government Rhetoric and Student Experiences (start 2014)
  • Lai Pik Chan: Foreign English teachers in China - opportunities and challenges (start 2015)
immigration China
Sign board, Denfeng police station, Guangzhou, 2014

Recognition and alterity in the portraiture
of Chinese-African encounters (ongoing)

Besides legal and policy issues, I have been interested in the ways African migrants have been represented in the Chinese public, in particular in the context of documentary photography. While being a Fellow at the Morphomata International Center for Advanced Studies (2018/19), I have worked on the project 'Recognition and alterity in the portraiture of Chinese-African encounters in Guangzhou' which links my interests in migration, ethnicity, and visual anthropology. The idea originally evolved from my earlier collaboration with the Chinese photographer Li Dong with whom I have organized the photo-exhibition BAOHAN Street: An African Community in Guangzhou, shown at the University of Cologne in October/November 2014 (see also exhibition catalogue). In the meantime, I have expanded my project to include the works of the photographers/artists Daniel Traub and Michael MacGarry who - similar to Li Dong - have documented the presence of African migrants in Guangzhou roughly around the same time (between 2012 and 2015). The goal is to produce a multivocal ethnography of the photographers’ engagement with the subject of African-Chinese encounters.
In 2018, Prof. Dr. Birgit Mersmann and I invited the photographer Daniel Traub and the curator and researcher Mi You to engange in a dialogue between theory and praxis, and to discuss with us the subject of Chinese-African encounters at the Morphomata International Center for Advanced Studies.