Don’t Go To China, African Migrants Tell Fellow Citizens

When Lamin Ceesay, an energetic 25-year-old from Gambia, arrived in China last year, he thought his life had made a turn for the better. As the oldest of four siblings, he was responsible for caring for his family, especially after his father passed away. But jobs were few in his hometown of Tallinding Kunjang, outside of the Gambian capital of Banjul. After hearing about China’s rise, his uncle sold off his taxi business and the two of them bought a ticket and a paid local visa dealer to get them to China.

It was very developed. The tall buildings, everything was colorful. I thought, okay my life is going to change. It’s going to be better. Life is good here,” Ceesay tells Quartz, describing his first impressions of the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou.

Gambia, a small country of just under 2 million people in West Africa, has been losing entire villages to migration mostly to Europe, but also to China. Chinese border restrictions have been easier than in Europe or North America and Guangzhou has become a hub for African migrants, traders, and entrepreneurs. In Gambia, youth unemployment is high, almost 40%, encouraging people like Ceesay to look east.

All I knew is that China was a world-class country and the economy is good,” he said.

 But Ceesay’s new life didn’t turn out quite how he imagined. The job that visa dealers promised would help him pay off his debts in three months didn’t exist. Ceesay struggled even to feed himself. When he tried to move to Hong Kong where he had heard work was better, he was escorted back to Guangzhou by police. Ceesay ended up in Thailand for three months, unsuccessfully looking for work, before coming home.

Determined not to let his experience be in vain, Ceesay has turned into a campaigner against the myth of China as a promised land for Africans seeking work. “I told my uncle, I’m going back to Gambia, and I’m going to tell this story and explain what’s happening.”

Ceesay went on local radio shows answering questions from callers about life and work in China. He started a Facebook page, “Gambians Nightmare in China” detailing the frustrating and dangerous situations that he and other Gambians in China found themselves in. Now, his story along with those of other returned Gambian migrants, is the basis of a new website called Uturn Asia, done in collaboration with migration researchers, Heidi Østbø Haugen and Manon Diederich, from the University of Oslo and the University of Cologne.

“The project came about because they had a strong wish to warn others against coming,” says Østbø Haugen. “They thought they could do so more effectively as a group than as individuals, as individual accounts of failure are often written off as attempts to justify ineptness.”

On the website, Ceesay and others detail the full circle, or U-turn, they completed: the decision to leave home—a calculus that often involved taking on heavy loans and families spending years of saving or selling off their few assets—optimism replaced by desperation as they ran out of money in China, and humiliation as they tried to scrabble enough money together to go home.

Tom Lori Published by Tom Lori

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