We were presented with a substantial background paper on the subject which estimated that 128 million people were on the move worldwide. The main problem confronting the UN was the fact that once a migrant was classified by a UN agency as a “refugee” it was their responsibility to provide the essential needs of food, shelter and medical services. Our challenge, we learned, was to try and define what a refugee was in real terms and how to limit the demand on UN services and funding.
In the late 80’s of last century I was in Denmark on business and had an opportunity to speak to a group of several hundred University students. I spoke about the inequality of the world we all lived in and the increasing opportunities for cross border migration. Towards the end I asked them what they thought about simply dropping all restraints and allowing free movement of people. There was a sudden hush and then a rush of comments basically saying “no way, we (Danes) could never allow that, we would be swamped”. I was surprised as I thought that Denmark was the most liberal of States in Europe.
I watched the most recent episode in this comic opera in the form of the meeting in the Mediterranean area of nearly 60 European and African leaders followed by an announcement that they had created a Trust Fund with $1,8 billion in funding to encourage African migrants to stay at home. What a joke!
Up to 1980 when we gained our Independence, migration from this country (Zimbabwe) had been relatively modest – perhaps 250 000 people had left the country for political reasons – either to join the guerilla war then raging or to go into some form of asylum – most to attend Universities and to take advantage of generous grants to secure an overseas education. Thousands went to special institutions in the Soviet bloc or to Cuba to get an education and skills and then to return home and play a role in our newly independent country.
At Independence many came home – some on a voluntary basis and some with a push from their host countries. I was then General Manager of the Dairibord and I persuaded the Irish Government that students studying the industry there should be sent home and I employed two or three – most unhappy people they were and they did not last long – most going back to the countries they had been studying in after a year or so in Zimbabweans.
By then a different migration was under way as the 280 000 white population considered their next move. In the next 20 years all but perhaps 40 000 left the country seeking places where they might put down their roots again. Most of these went to three countries – South Africa, Australia and Britain where they were silently and without any fuss absorbed into the fabric of society, many making a positive impact on the countries they migrated to.
The genocide among the Ndebele people from 1983 to 1987 killed perhaps 40 000 people but drove hundreds of thousands into the arms of their counterparts in South Africa.
Then in 1997 the State here began to make a succession of mistakes and the fragile economy began a long slow slide into a full blown collapse by 2008. After 2000 when political oppression intensified many sought safety in other countries and were granted refugee status. However the great majority – perhaps 97 per cent, were simply fleeing the chaos and uncertainty, the loss of jobs and income and the desire for a better life.
As the crisis escalated the numbers of migrants began to grow – a steady outflow in the early days and gradually escalating until 5000 people a day were crossing our borders –many illegally and without documentation of any kind.
The majority settled in South Africa which now has an illegal Zimbabwean community of over 4 million people. 600 000 are settled, have South African papers and are working legally with many thousands occupying senior positions. The Head of MTN – one of the largest corporations in SA today and who has just resigned over the Nigerian fine saga, is a Zimbabwean migrant.
Many went to Canada because it was easy to get in and then crossed over into the USA or Europe. Many went to Australia and New Zealand and the UK has the largest overseas population where Zimbabweans now number over 400 000 and this is increasing daily.
Some (a small but significant minority) could be classified as refugees from political oppression the rest were economic migrants.
Today a third of our total population lives abroad and remits small sums of money each month to their homes here to pay school fees and buy groceries or to pay for a funeral for a relative. Altogether I estimate that they probably earn a combined sum of $15 to $20 billion a year – far exceeding our own GDP of about $14 billion. Remittances must now exceed $3 billion a year – well below what the Somalis send home and mainly because so many are in the informal and low wage sector in South Africa.
Zimbabwean experience is similar to many other countries in Africa – in Somalia half the population has fled to other countries, Eritrea the same, Ethiopia must be close to this sort of total – right across the North of Africa migration has been a big business for many years. As you come south the percentages in the Diaspora come down until you reach South Africa which probably has the smallest percentage of its population now living abroad and has itself become a target for perhaps 1o to 12 million migrants of all kinds.
A recent study conducted in Australia and looking at how migrants fared after absorption into society found that the top performing migrants came from Zimbabwe most of whom has settled down in middle and upper income categories of Australian society. This is yet another aspect of this global movement of people. Alongside the stories of a disaster in Europe you have countries actually advertising for migrants who have a good education and a high level of skills.
This aspect of migration is seldom studied – the drain of above average individuals who are enticed to stay behind after graduation or to migrate to some country that is seeking their skills and hard work. The top emerging new entrepreneur in the UK this year is a young white farmer driven out of Zimbabwe by his errant government. This draining away of talent and skills makes it even more difficult to develop the “home” countries of migrants and exacerbates the growing inequalities between countries and continents.
Set against these realities the European Trust Fund is not even a drop in the ocean; it’s a sum so paltry as to simply make the whole situation more pathetic than it should be. What every country in the world has to now recognise is that we live in a global village; that borders no longer restrain human movements and that so long as global inequalities remain fixed as they are, people will continue to migrate from low income societies to higher income societies.
In addition it calls into attention, the failure of countries to adhere to globally accepted norms in terms of economic and political freedoms, rights and opportunities. Good governance is not an optional extra; it is the very foundation of a new and more equitable world – one that offers a better quality of life and improved opportunities for everyone. Until get there, we are all potential migrants and refugees.