International Mobility and African Cities

Convenors: Nick Dines (European University Institute) & Paola Piscitelli (University of Witwatersrand; University of Hamburg)


International migration to cities has long been an established topic of ethnography. Research to date, however, has largely centred on the cities of the Global North and has addressed a range of themes and discourses, such as racism, “cultural diversity” and “integration”, that play out in markedly different ways or simply do not translate smoothly in the cities and urban regions of other parts of the world and in the various mobility practices that are associated with them. This panel intends to bring together ethnographic research, both written and audio-visual, to explore the manifold relationships between international migration/trans-local mobilities and African cities.

African cities have historically been characterized by international mobility that has taken place alongside and sometimes preceded internal migration. During colonialism, urban development was often underpinned by the arrival of foreigners, whether through colonial settlement, as exemplified by the French Ville Nouvelles of Morocco, or forced migration, as in the case of historic slave communities in Cape Town. From the nineteenth century a range of international labour flows would shape African urban life, from the Lebanese diaspora in West Africa to the seasonal migration of foreign workers in South Africa’s mining regions during Apartheid. The post-independence era saw transnational migration continue towards the continent’s expanding cities, perhaps best illustrated in Abidjan where by the 1980s over a quarter of the Ivorian city’s population comprised people from other West African states.

Today, with rapid urban growth and major restructuring projects taking place across the continent, international mobility to African cities is as diverse and complex as it is everywhere else in the world: from sub-Saharan elites moving to Tunis and Sfax for private health and fertility treatment to the circular migration of petty traders between Maputo and Johannesburg; from the settlement of Chinese contracted workers in urban enclaves to the post-crisis relocation of Portuguese professionals to Luanda. International migration has often been a source of conflict, epitomized by the recurrent xenophobic attacks and counter protests in South African townships, while at the same time its economic benefits have been embraced by policy initiatives, as demonstrated by the African Union Agenda 2063’s vision for Pan-African free movement and integrated high-speed train networks.

Nevertheless, ethnographic research on international migration and mobility in African cities appears to be somewhat scattered and, besides a few notable comparative projects largely coordinated from South Africa or the Global North, it tends to focus on isolated cases. Moreover, a number of areas have received scant attention, such as the impact of international mobility upon regional urban development or secondary cities, which have often experienced greater migration-fuelled growth than Africa’s leading metropolises.

This panel aims to bring into conversation research on old and newly urbanized regions from across the African continent (including North Africa) in order to explore and confront a range of themes that encourage a rethinking of the ways in which the “migration-city nexus” gets experienced and understood in the world today. Proposals are welcome that draw on original ethnographic research adopting any data collection method (including audio-visual means) and that critically engage with scholarly debates on international migration in cities.

Possible themes include, but are certainly not limited to the following:

- South-South entrepreneurial and labour migration to African cities;

- Non-economic forms of South-South mobilities in African cities (health, education, etc.);

- North-South migration to African cities (from NGO workers to retirees);

- International migration, translocal mobilities and “right to the (African) city”;

- Encounters and conflicts between temporary/settled migrant and host communities;

- Local state and elite responses to international migration;

- Arrival infrastructures in urban contexts.

For people requiring assistance with a visa application, the University of Bergamo will supply an official invitation letter once their abstract proposal has been accepted.

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