The International Migrants Day – An Interview with Asaf Augusto on North to South Migration
In 2000 the UN determined the 18th of December to be celebrated as the International Migrants Day, in remembrance of the “International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families” which was adopted on the same date in 1990.
In current times migration is a highly politicised topic in the western public and academic sphere, focusing mainly on South to North movements of individuals and families. Often grouped up and equated with discourses about refugees, it comes with a literal barrage of different political opinions, public strategies, and institutional responses.
In the light of the 20th International Migrants Day today, the undisputed relevance and the recent successful defence of his doctoral thesis “North to South Migration: Portuguese Labour Migration to Angola”, we sat down with Asaf Augusto to discuss an interesting blind spot in debates about international migration: namely North-South Migration, with an emphasis on Portuguese migrant workers to Angola as a “new” form of migration.
Postcolonial theory, Lusotropicalism and Coloniality
Using the lens of the postcolonial theory Asaf looked at the legacy of the Portuguese Colonial Enterprise in Angola, which was highly influenced by “Lusotropicalism”. This was the ideology of superiority over other forms of colonialism, due to the emphasis on a peaceful liaison between coloniser and colonised: paraded by the relatively high number of interracial marriages and mixed-race children. This notion of racial harmony, though often in contrast with the reality of racialised hierarchies and stereotypes, exerts much influence in Angolan and Portuguese public perception of their relationship until today. In this context Asaf uses the concept of Coloniality: namely colonial concepts, ideas and images that transcend direct colonial rule.
“The slogan of Angola is from the north to the south we are one people: This was the myth that the government implemented. Within this notion of ‘one people’, issues of race, class and ethnicity were completely dismissed. Even when it happened, they said: “No this is not who we are”. This is not just part of Angolan nation building, but also the legacy of Portuguese colonialism”.
This might also help in understanding the Portuguese reluctance to grant their colonies independence. Officially they were postulated as provinces, not colonies, and henceforth inseparable from the Portuguese Motherland. The Independence of Angola in 1975 was preceded by 13 years of armed liberation struggle, that was ceased with the overthrow of the far-right Estado Novo regime in Portugal and the full concession by the new regime.
If Angola and Portugal share this common past and continue to have a close international relationship, then what exactly can be “new” about Portuguese migration to Angola?
“Since the end of colonialism Angola is conventionally not a country where Europeans migrate to. This “new” migration is not just employed by retirees or tourists. Portuguese people are choosing Angola, because they are looking for jobs – to get good salaries and send money back to Portugal.”
It is interesting, that the motivation in this North-South-Migration doesn’t differ from other trends of international migration. For example, the UN writes the following:
“Throughout human history, migration has been a courageous expression of the individual’s will to overcome adversity and to live a better life.”
Though, the perception of self and others and the ‘starting’ conditions for Portuguese migrants in Angola are quite different and highly influenced by Coloniality. It starts by a distinction in every-day language: permanent movement from North to South is rarely called migration, instead Portuguese migrants are referred to as ‘expatriates’. They often see themselves as descendants of industrialised countries, who have come to help and develop. This is also mirrored in Angolan believes about work ethics, trust and skills. The narrative of the lazy native contrasted by the hard-working Portuguese is still dominant in a lot of contexts, which in turn lends more trust to Portuguese workers than Angolans: If you need to get something done, you need a Portuguese manager. Asaf also looks at skill as a plastic concept:
“What is considered skill in Angola is often not considered skill in Portugal. Someone working as an electrician in Portugal might end up working as an engineer in Angola.”
The consequence is not only a difference in wages (up to four times more), but also an unfair favouritism when it comes to positions of power. Not infrequently does that lead to tensions and discontent at the workplace, when Angolans realise that not every Portuguese co-workers and superior is actually sufficiently or better ‘skilled’ than them.
Bringing this to the forefront of Angolan mainstream, a public discourse remains a sensitive issue – one could say almost a taboo. Ideas of Lusotropicalism and Coloniality present Angola as a multiracial country, without major racial tensions. If one tries to make a political statement, public outcries often follow, painting the speaker as a ‘racist’ towards white Angolans. Asaf makes clear, that white citizens are by no means a homogenous group and have a multitude of different backgrounds, identities, and origin stories. Many are long-time active members in the Angolan civil society, hold public offices and are deeply valued and beloved by constituents, neighbours, and friends. All of this might explain the widespread aversion to one-dimensional attempts to politically capitalise on issues of race and ethnicity. But it continues to present a difficulty when one tries to describe and resolve tensions and discontent of Angolan workers in relation to their Portuguese co-workers and superiors.
The International Migrants Day
Are initiatives like the UN International Migrants Day on the other hand a good platform to raise overall awareness? Asafs thoughts are clear:
“The UN and other organisation tend to concentrate on the South-North migration. This is also the image you receive from media and public officials. Unconsciously they don’t believe that North-South migration can happen, because there is always this dramatic understanding of migration: people from the Global South who desperately try to reach the Global North. In my thesis I try to demonstrate that this is not always the case and problematise all those implications. I am critically looking at how the concept of migration is shaped by Eurocentric ideas of Europe as a paradise and the rest as none-existent or under-developed.”
We congratulate Asaf for the successful completion of his PhD degree and are curious for further contributions in theory and empirical research. In the name of BIGSAS, we wish him all the best for his future!
 Augusto; King (2020): “Skilled white bodies”: Portuguese workers in Angola as a case of North-South migration; In: The Geographical Journal 186; p.116-127
(The cover picture shows Asaf at the Journalist Award 2019 where he was one of the hosts. For more information on the Journalist Award click here)