Published on People Move

Chinese migrants in Africa (and vice versa)

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China's trade, aid and investment linkages with Africa have increased exponentially in the last few years. China-Africa trade rose ten-fold during 2000-07 to $73 billion.  A recent research paper co-authored with my colleagues Dilip and Sonia documents China's increasing financial involvement in Africa (see box on "New Players in Sub-Saharan Africa" on page 13).

These links appear to have resulted in increased migration between Africa and China. Along with Chinese small business owners and migrant workers settling in African cities, Chinese companies involved in banking, construction, infrastructure, mining, and oil extraction projects in Africa also tend to bring along their workers.

A recent MPI study says that official figures show over 100,000 Chinese workers in Africa -- with their true size likely several times higher. However, these are not just one-way flows from China to Africa. Some 10,000 or more Africans reportedly live in a 10 square kilometer district in the Guangzhou province nicknamed "Little Africa" -- similar to the "Little Italys" and "China Towns" in major cities around the world. 

According to the political scientist Sasha Gong cited in the MPI study, Chinese migrants use four methods to migrate to Africa:

  • Licensed private employment agencies used by most temporary migrants
  • Social networks (relatives or other personal connections) and illegal or semilegal unlicensed employment agencies
  • Human smugglers known as "snakeheads", which are often used by migrants who use Africa to transit to Europe and the United States
  • Inter-governmental agreements used to send professionals and laborers for training

In addition, some 5,000 African students now study in China, many on scholarships provided by the Chinese government.

Although the migration numbers above appear small for a continent and the most populous country--and even if more reliable data is hard to come by--these flows will inevitably raise issues of integration in both China and in Africa. If the current crisis turns worse, these pressures may increase. The challenge for the governments on both sides is to recognize the long-term benefits of trade, investment and migration linkages and not react to short-term factors.

An equally or more important challenge for the authorities is to provide increased opportunities for legal and safe migration, ensure that migrant workers are treated humanely, paid market wages and not abused by employers, and improve the facilities that migrants have to send remittances to their home countries.


Sanket Mohapatra

Associate Professor, IIM Ahmedabad

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