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10 December, 2007 - Published 14:48 GMT

By Mukoma wa Ngugi
Free online content from BBC Focus on Africa magazine

Opinion: Home Truths

With so many African's making their living abroad, Mukoma wa Ngugi argues that goverments back home need to speak up for them and oppose their discrimination by the West.

There seems to be a common misconception that Africans are born dreaming of emigrating to the West.

But if we are to see Africans as fully fledged members of humanity, we should recognise that no-one would want to leave his or her family for an indefinite period of time to earn a living in a foreign country such as the United States.

We should also recognise that there are factors – including poverty, war and natural disasters – that force people to leave their homes.

Africans who move to the West also suffer the pain and hunger of exile that comes from being cut adrift from those you love.

In this sense, all immigrations are forced.

Exploitation abroad

However, not all African immigrants are equal. Professionals are less vulnerable to exploitation, racism and sexism than illegal African immigrants.

It is the latter who look after ageing Americans in nursing homes, cater to the mentally ill, flip burgers, wash dishes and work as security guards – somewhere between 60 to 80 hours a week – sometimes holding two jobs in order to keep themselves and their families back home afloat.

With so many people relying on them, they do not join trade unions, or join Americans to fight racism or oppose oppressive US foreign policy.

They cannot be in solidarity with others. They are unable to protect their basic human rights and are preyed on racially and sexually.

The African immigrant's life abroad is all the more precarious because their government is not able to stand up to the West when their inalienable human rights are violated.

Leaders are lacking

Even though racism endangers the lives of Africans in the US – Guinean Amadou Diallo was shot at 41 times by racist New York police – African leaders do not raise the alarm; when racial tensions rose after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, they failed to call Western consulates to caution about innocent Africans being swept off to Guantanamo Bay or held without trial indefinitely under the US Patriot Act.

African leaders should at the very least register complaints about the $100 non-refundable US visa application fee that thousands of poor Africans are forced to pay, and the racism and humiliation they often endure at the hands of US immigration officials at various embassies.

In a continent where the majority live on less than $2 a day this fee is tantamount to selling miracle water to the poor.

But African immigration is not all for naught. A 2005 United Nations figure suggested that remittances from Africans abroad were "$17 billion per annum, virtually overtaking foreign direct investment flows which averaged about $15 billion per annum during the same period".

Harnessing the resource

If you figure that US foreign aid to all of Africa is about $4 billion, a delightful irony should become apparent: Africans are the best source of foreign currency for their respective countries.

Instead of holding out begging bowls each year, African governments should find ways of harnessing this resource by allowing dual citizenship, facilitating overseas voting, actively courting Africans abroad to invest at home and offering diaspora tourism packages.

They should find ways to keep the honey bee producing.

But history soon comes calling. Remittances only scratch the surface of structures that for centuries have been siphoning African wealth.

According to Charles Abugre in a 2005 article in Pambazuka News, "Some estimates suggest that Africa's accumulated stock of capital transferred abroad between 1970 and 2000 amounted to over $280 billion through balance-of-payment financing, debt-servicing, official reserves held abroad and trade mis-invoicing."

The value of Africa

Throw in a history of exploitation, unequal trade, taxes paid by Africans abroad, capital lost through the brain drain and money stored overseas by the African elite in Western banks and remittances pale into insignificance in the face of this unrelenting fleecing of Africa.

Back to the figures, the UN estimates remittances by individual African immigrants to be about $200 per month.

So is Africa better off with Africans working and paying taxes at home or with the $200 they remit each month from abroad?

We need our leaders to right historical inequalities by opposing US cotton farm subsidies, unequal trade between nations and by eradicating the vicious class system that keeps the poor locked in the underclass.

These are all conditions that force our brothers and sisters out of the continent.

Africans, what are you worth? What is Africa worth to you? And what are you willing to do to get it back?


This is a free online version of the article that appears in the January - March 2008 edition of BBC Focus on Africa magazine.

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