Migrants and Mobility between Africa and Asia

Agnes Khoo

This book encompasses a broad range of perspectives and disciplines, which makes it a unique contribution to the field of migration and Area Studies on Africa and Asia. It highlights the fluidity and complexities of migration between the two continents and of migrants’ identities and sense of belonging, as well as the dynamism of migrant communities that refuse to be bound by or reduced to a single academic discipline or discourse.

This 290-page book is divided into three parts. Part I consists of two chapters focusing on the connected histories of Africa and Asia through a religious book and a religious leader of the Islamic faith, both of which are shared and claimed by both continents. Part II contains five chapters that centre on Asia in Africa based on case studies in Ghana, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, South Africa, and the region of Southern Africa. The four chapters of Part III analyse African migration to – and African migrants in ­– China, India, and Cambodia, as well as Japanese and Asian activism against the apartheid regime of South Africa.

To fully appreciate the breadth and depth of the book, it is best to begin with the introductory chapter penned by the editors. The chapter attempts to give a cohesive framework to the rather disparate chapters, which is a tall task that the editors have accomplished remarkably well. In their analytical approach, the editors have deployed many concepts: transnationalism, human mobilities and networks, the spatiality and temporality of migration, and transnational social capital as both the driver of migration and the sustenance of migrant communities. Transnational social capital is further differentiated into “bonding social capital” deployed by “closed and exclusive migrant communities” on the one hand, and “bridging social capital” on the other hand, which rests upon “open and inclusive networks that connect discrete communities” (p. 15). The book’s attempt to understand and interpret migration and migrants through these theoretical lenses illuminates the “fluidity, malleability and changeability” of migration. It also reiterates migrants as complex and dynamic subjects who are inter-connected. However, such migrants can also be easily dispersed, disaggregated, or segregated, as macro and micro conditions coalesce and clash.

The book’s focus on the transnationality of Afro-Asian relations provides nuanced and textured analyses about the “multiple interfaces” (p. 6) between African and Asian migrant communities. It critically examines African/Asian encounters of each other in so-called “multifarious contact zones” (p. 6), where cultures meet and clash or cohere with each other, and where African-Asian relations continue to be shaped and transformed. By configuring and re-configuring migrants as transnational networks, there is a paradigmatic shift away from the limiting lens of seeing migrant communities as homogenous, static blocs of ‘the other’ that ultimately disempowers them. On the contrary, migrants’ self-determination and empowerment are restored; their actions and decisions are recognised as purposeful rather than ad hoc or incidental.

Equally significant is the editors’ emphasis on analysing migration and migrants not only “from above,” but also “from below” (p. 1). Whilst contemporary scholarship on Africa-Asian Studies tends to focus on grand analyses of geo-politics and political-economy at the macro-level (i.e., from above), this book dives into the multi-layered and richly-textured analyses of migrant communities at the micro level (i.e., from below). In so doing, it provides a realistic and contextualised understanding of African-Asian migration on the ground – an approach that is nuanced and historically informed. Whilst the view “from above” highlights the interplay of politics and economics for understanding migration, the view “from below” deploys a “bottom-up” and multi-layered analysis through migrants’ own narratives. The latter includes life stories, literature, arts and crafts, and religious texts. Thus, this book expands our appreciation of Africa-Asian migration beyond macro-economics, international relations, development, and politics by examining African-Asian relations in personal and community narratives, as well as through inter-personal dialogue. According to the editors, “context-based, empirical case studies of migrant encounters and entanglements are of prime importance in the study of contemporary Afro-Asian relations…” (p. 17-18).     

Further, by reiterating that multiculturalism has always existed in the Global South, albeit quite differently from how it is understood and practiced in the Global North, the editors bring to the fore the historicity of African-Asian migration and vice versa. This challenges and transcends mainstream discourses on today’s Africa-Asia, particularly Africa-China, relations. Moreover, various chapters highlight the inadequacies of understanding African-Asian (vice versa) migration from a “North-South” perspective. A significant breakthrough of the book lies in its attempt to unravel the complex, uneven, and fluid dynamism of “South-South” migration patterns, with all the accompanying socio-political tensions and angst, not to mention the economic implications for the migrants and the countries/spaces to and from which they are migrating. Related to that, a noteworthy contribution of the book is its emphasis on the reciprocity of interregional migration between Africa and Asia. In other words, contemporary African-Asian migration is no longer linear nor unilateral; it is distinctively reciprocal.

It is commendable that the authors, in their writing, have boldly tackled sensitive and thorny issues surrounding migration, such as racism, xenophobia, domination, and subordination between communities. This book unravels the socio-political and economic mechanisms that are at play in various forms of othering, often used against minorities and vulnerable migrant communities through legal and political instruments and by enforcing dominant norms and normative behaviours. The calling out of racial discrimination against migrants, both by Africans and Asians vis-à-vis “the other,” sets out a more equitable basis upon which such divisive issues can be further dealt with. Furthermore, the book places the subjectivity and agency of the migrants, both Africans and Asians, at the core of its discussion, thereby empowering migrants as active and historical subjects as they collaborate with one another and/or challenge larger geo-political dynamics.

What is missing in the book, however, is a more critical look at the shared colonial histories of Africa and Asia and how colonialism, as experienced by peoples of both continents, continues to shape their perspectives about (and responses to) one another. The long and profound experience and impact of western colonisation on both continents, and of Japanese colonisation in Asia during World War II, where African soldiers fought as colonial subjects of the Commonwealth, should provide invaluable insights into Afro-Asian relations of the 21st century. Today, African traders, students, and expatriates have replaced African soldiers fighting in Asia during WWII, whilst Asian entrepreneurs and corporations have replaced the Asian indentured labour that built some of Africa’s infrastructures. African and Asian migrants living and working in each other’s continents today should recognise each other as autonomous and equal subjects imbued with, on the one hand, their respective histories and, on the other hand, their shared histories as former colonised subjects. This shared historical experience continues to shape how African and Asian migrants see and relate to one another today. Whilst Africa and Asia continue to inhabit, consciously or unconsciously, the “colonial lens” through which the post-colonial world is interpreted and experienced, a critical examination of that shared colonial history has become ever more pertinent for 21st century African-Asian relations.