AfroMont Editorial October 2016 - The African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS)

I finally did something I’ve wanted to do since 2008 – I did a short course at the University of Witwatersrand’s African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS). The ACMS is an important scholarly institution in Africa for research and teaching on human mobility, and was formerly called Forced Migration Studies. It offers Africa’s only post-graduate degrees in migration and displacement studies and provides training to students and professionals on a number of topics including the sociology of migration, mobility and health, human rights, and research methods.ACMS research on international and domestic migration critically analyses how human mobility reshapes institutions, attitudes, economies and policies. Through its work, the centre influences global and regional academic research agendas, policy deliberations and civil society mobilisation.

Migration must surely be one of the world’s most pressing issues. As at 2016, one in every 113 people globally is either an asylum-seeker, internally displaced or a refugee.  In addition, in 2015, 244 million people lived outside their country of origin. As a result of these trends, the world is facing an enormous challenge in dealing justly and humanely with migrants and their health issues, whether on the scale as seen in currently in Europe or on a smaller scale, as in South Africa with its on-going xenophobia against ‘foreigners’.

The course that I studied was called Psychosocial and Health Consequences of Forced Migration and took a group of 14 postgraduate students through the structural determinants of health, HIV and mobility, biomedicine and other traditional forms of health, post-traumatic stress, humanitarianism and social networks and health, as all this related to human mobility. Most of the other students were doing their masters or PhDs in some aspect of migration, and many were from countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zimbabwe.

It was a real privilege to meet these students (see below) and there were many interesting discussions during coffee and lunch breaks.

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Johannesburg in South Africa is among the list of ‘most migrated into’ cities of the world, and within many areas of the city are now located foreign enclaves (Ethiopian, Somali, Zimbabwean, and Mozambican). The first photograph shows a Cameroonian social club in the Johannesburg suburb of Turffontein, once a suburb for lower-class white industrial and mine workers and now home to Africans from many parts of Africa).  The second photograph shows a man selling Portuguese-language publications, also in Turffontein.

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The presence and issue of migrants in South Africa has definitely become noticeable, especially since the economic meltdown of some of South Africa’s neighbouring countries. To everyone’s horror, in 2008 there was a violent reaction to foreigners many foreign nationals were beaten up or killed, and their shacks or small shops burned down. Thousands of other fled back to their countries of origin or were held in ‘refugee camps’ hastily set up in various parts of Johannesburg. ‘Xenophobia’ became a word that could not be spoken as the government struggled to comprehend why local people were so enraged with the presence of African foreigners. In 2013 and 2015, this all happened again.

Now, as the world watches the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe and the growing number of African migrants who try to cross the Mediterranean, we can see that the issue of migration is not going to go away. 

Climate change and human migration

Another big issue that ‘cannot be mentioned’ is that of climate change and human migration. The United Nations Security council debate (2007) on climate change and refugees called for a ‘long-term global response’ to deal with climate change. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that projected climate changes could not only have serious environmental, social and economic implications, but implications for peace and security, as well.  He said, this is especially true in vulnerable regions that face multiple stresses at the same time like pre-existing conflict, poverty and unequal access to resources, weak institutions, food insecurity and incidence of diseases such as HIV/AIDS.  The Secretary-General outlined several scenarios, including limited or threatened access to energy increasing the risk of conflict, a scarcity of food and water transforming peaceful competition into violence and floods and droughts sparking massive human migrations, polarizing societies and weakening the ability of countries to resolve conflicts peacefully.

By the time this happens, the world needs to be sure that human migration is dealt with in a just and humane manner and that mobile persons and refugees are accommodated in a way that does not worsen their situation, or strain receiving countries beyond their capacity. It would seem that the world, and not just individual countries, will need to collaborate on this enormous issue. The main point is that any of us could become climate migrants, not just ‘poor people’.