PhD thesis on transnational migration and remittance flows to Cameroon
On 27 February Christina Atekmangoh, doctoral affiliate at the Graduate Institute’s Global Migration Centre, defended her PhD thesis in Anthropology and Sociology of Development, entitled “‘Les Mbengis’ – Migration, Gender and Family: The Moral Economy of Transnational Cameroonian Migrants’ Remittances”. Professor Alessandro Monsutti presided the committee, which included Honorary Professor Jean-Pierre Jacob, Thesis Director, and Ms Ninna Nyberg Sørensen, from the Danish Institute for International Studies. By focusing on the socio-economic and cultural dispositions that define family and kinship relations and intend shape remittance flows in migrants’ countries of origin, her research examines how gender and family dynamics affect transnational migration.
Why did you choose to study transnational migration?
I worked as a research assistant in Cameroon on a similar project on transitional migration in 2007–2008. This experience, coupled with my own never-ending desire to travel abroad for studies, motivated me to study transnational migration. In addition, there is a general acceptance in Cameroon that going abroad is the surest and best way to a secure future for many individual migrants and their families. So I wanted to find out from an anthropological perspective how this practice became mainstreamed within family circles in Cameroon.
And what did you find out?
I found that families play an important role in transnational migration in terms of financing migration projects and those who migrate are not randomly selected. Families make financial commitments for children, siblings, close and distant relatives whom they consider are “smart” and hardworking and will not forget the rest of the family once they go abroad.
Furthermore, my study provides evidence that the inflows of material resources to family and friends at home are inextricably accompanied by improved consumption patterns and better living conditions (health, education, housing, etc.), which in turn represents a long-term economic impact nationally. In this respect, the argument raised by this study is that understanding the social impact and value of remittances requires us to go beyond a quantifiable, econometric model in order to analyse the meaning of remittances to families and communities in migrants’ sending contexts. This is because remittances embody obligations and loyalty between migrants and their families and become an integral part of familial, social, cultural and symbolic capital. Migrants and their families need to maintain ties and to do this, they must maintain a moral and juridical character by ensuring that families back home and the migrants abroad are “not forgotten”. This means that communication through phone calls and sending remittances remain central to maintaining ties across great geographical distances.
Thus, migration and the sending of remittances are embedded in the cultural and emotional values that define family ties, and understanding the socio-economic significance of remittances cannot be disentangled from the analysis of the moral evaluation and the meaning of money and other material goods. This brings out the double effect of remittances, which serve an immediate need for family sustenance and a long-term need for increased gross national income – the migration and development model. Hence, this double effect of remittances transforms the way family life is configured across different social strata. As a matter of fact, ideas of what a family is and the changing definition of kin relations with regards to migration are informative of how migrants construct their genealogies and the values ascribed to investing in migration and benefitting through remittances.
As my data demonstrates, migrants send remittances to cover family needs as well as needs of friends. Some of these needs include investment projects to generate income for the benefit of the recipient friend or family. This creates a positive image of the migrant as “good” and successful. On the other hand, where the migrant fails to meet unbounded remittance expectations, she or he is branded as being “wicked” and/or unsuccessful. It is important to mention that being undocumented can restrict the timing and the amount of remittances sent by some migrants. Yet, in making decisions to migrate, families do not think about the legal and/or living conditions of the migrant upon arrival. What is important is that migrants have to come home with adequate earnings from their migration ventures to feed the family. Hence, the notion that deportation will stop or, better still, discourage African transnational migration remains unconvincing.
Deportation of undocumented migrants and “inadmissibles” does not discourage and will not halt further migration. This explains why, despite increasing deportation and massive campaigns from many developed countries intended to dismiss the notion of a paradise Europe, many African migrants are still dying at sea trying to enter Europe. In the context of departure (in this case, Africa), migration successes and failures are explained in terms of luck, and also in terms of those who are “sharp” and hardworking against those who are not. For example, if a migrant was caught and deported due to his or her undocumented status, this is interpreted by family and friends back home as a sign of laziness. It was the migrant’s bad luck and she or he was not proactive enough to succeed like other undocumented migrants who still manage to make it against incredible odds. Therefore, aspiring migrants would want to go by any means possible.
What policy recommendations would you suggest to address the migration crisis?
As long as the economies of African countries remain stagnant and wealth and power remain in the hands of a privileged few, increasing undocumented migration flows will persist. My suggestion is that regional policies on migration control should also focus on equitable trade that seeks to benefit the masses. The rampant corruption in many African countries in many subtle ways instigates massive youth migration from the continent. Consequently, regional partnerships focusing on migration control should work alongside human rights and anticorruption organisations to ensure that, in the case of Africa, equitable and transparent development constitutes a key factor in the sustainable control of the migration crisis. The influx of undocumented migrants would be better regulated by allocating resources more in the context of departure.
What are you going to do now?
For now, I’m applying for jobs, mostly in my country, Cameroon, and in the African continent. I hope that I can be able to use the knowledge gained from my years of study abroad to create meaningful impacts in my community and across the continent.
And how will you remember your doctoral experience?
As a quite rewarding one. And by this I mean I learnt a lot, both intellectually and otherwise. Although I haven’t found a job yet, Career Services is fascinating and the staff are so helpful. My professors at the Department of Anthropology and Sociology of Development and fellow classmates have all contributed to shape my views of the world. This unique experience gained from my time here at the Institute will forever influence my career choices.
Full citation of the PhD thesis: Atekmangoh, Christina. “‘Les Mbengis’ – Migration, Gender and Family: The Moral Economy of Transnational Cameroonian Migrants’ Remittances”. PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, 2017.
Illustration: Fresques Par P3Pe, Douala (Cameroon), September 2011.