Migration has been used as an important strategy by people for centuries in getting out of debilitating conditions and taking advantage of opportunities elsewhere to improve their lives. Internationally, large waves of movements between continents have been common in the past before the emergence of nationalist laws that have sought to restrict these movements.

The contribution of migrants to both the transformation of destinations and places of origin have been phenomenal. Global remittance receipt figures have continued to rise, most of the time, well above comparative receipts from Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) and Foreign Direct Investments (FDI). Migration patterns have altered enormously over the past three decades as the preferred destinations have changed to include Asian countries with considerable developmental achievements.

While ‘traditional’ Western destination countries still predominate among some migrant categories, South-South migration is equally substantial in volume partly attributable to the prevailing immigration control measures adopted by developed Western countries that have priced out aspiring migrants from the Global South. We provide a brief overview of bi-directional migration flows between China and Africa/Ghana before briefly discussing the migration, poverty and inequality nexus debate. We then tell a story of the benefits and the challenges experienced by migrants from Ghana to China. Fundamentally, we argue that while migration has the potential to enhance livelihoods, reduce poverty and smoothen social inequalities in Ghana, this is conditioned on institutional, policy and behavioural factors being streamlined.

China-Africa/Ghana flows

China has had deep historical roots in migration, dating back to the first imperial dynasty (221-207 BC) led by then Chinese leader Qin Shi Huang. Historical records suggest that the Qing Dynasty dispatched a team led by Xu Fu to sail overseas to explore opportunities for the population. By the end of the 19th Century, it was evident to the Chinese that Chinese migrants could be an indispensable asset to broader national development.

The history of Chinese migration to Africa dates back to the 17th century with the Dutch East India Company in present-day South Africa and was later followed by a small number of Chinese contract workers who also arrived in the southern part of Africa and later other parts of Africa including Ghana in the mid-19th century. The economic reforms of the 1970s in China combined with the liberalisation of emigration regulations in 1985 have facilitated the acquisition of requisite international travel documentation. These national realities are matched by relatively weak immigration entry requirements by African destination countries. Leading African destination countries for Chinese migrants have included Algeria, Angola, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Zambia, Kenya, Egypt and Ghana.

The first significant wave of Chinese migration to Ghana was recorded in the 1950s, the earliest being Hong Kong-Chinese engaged in tobacco farming and small-scale manufacturing. Between the 1950s and 1980s, Chinese involvement in Ghana was mostly in the textile industry leading to the establishment of Akosombo Textiles Limited and Juapong Textiles Limited. Later arrivals of Chinese have been involved in the construction, engineering, trading, hospitality, fishing and health sectors.

Ghana-China counter flows

Conversely, there has been a huge flow of migrants from Africa to destinations in the Global North as well as emerging destinations in wealthy Global Southern countries such as China. According to Obeng, the presence of Africans and people of black origins dates as far back as the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). Contemporary migration of Africans to China, especially southern China, is said to have accelerated in the mid-1990s following the East Asian financial crisis.

Though the number of Ghanaian migrants in China is uncertain, Obeng broadly divides the Ghanaian migrant population into transient (comprising transnational traders and business executives of Chinese companies) and semi-permanent (including entrepreneurs, diplomats, teachers of English language and tertiary students). The motivations for these movements have been multifaceted, including for education, commerce, and tourism. These new flows certainly have had significant effects on economic dimensions of the lives of migrants and those of their families and their country of origin, especially in the areas of poverty reduction and inequality dynamics.

Migration, poverty and inequality linkages

Globally, a number of studies seem to establish an association between migration, poverty and inequality. Studies in many developing countries have related migration to livelihood approaches – often adopted by poor households and individuals to overcome poverty situations. This linkage also underpins the assumptions and theoretical analysis of migration by some scholars in the area of migration theorization. Over the last four decades in particular, remittances from migrants have been credited with contributing to reductions in global inequality by enhancing the levels of income of poor households in countries of origin and further moving such families out of poverty. Conversely, migration and its ensuing effects have also been said to have widened poverty gaps and created inequalities at the micro and macro levels in migrant-sending areas. The conditioning factors that define the direction of the effects are not well explored.

Over the years, the most convenient variable in the linkage between migration and poverty has been remittances and the impact of migrants’ remittances on the socio-economic livelihoods of families back home. Receipt of remittances is often assumed to alleviate poverty. Thus, the nexus between migration and poverty reduction is argued to correlate strongly with human capital development, financial development/inclusion and ultimately the alleviation of poverty in areas of origin.

There is evidence to the effect that remittances have increased over the last three decades with significant increases for low and middle-income countries in 2017. Growing migration and receipt of remittances may have a positive impact on poverty at the household and community levels. Initially, the migration of a member of a rural poor household may bring more hardships to it due to the capital investments and loss of labour, but once the migrant is established at the destination and begins to send down remittances, the households’ economic situation begins to improve. Using nationally representative household survey data to examine the impact of remittances on poverty and inequality in Ghana, Adams et al. in 2008 found that both internal and international remittances are capable of reducing the level, depth and severity of poverty in Ghana. Remittances from international migrants have a greater impact on reducing poverty compared to remittances from internal migrants due mainly to the quantum of the transfers.

Benefits of migrating to China by Ghanaians

Ghana-China relations have yielded some positive outcomes not only for the nation-state but for its citizens migrating for greener pastures. At the macro level, China has become Ghana’s leading trading partner with bilateral trade increasing from less than $100 million in 2000 to $6.7 billion in 2017. At the micro-level, Ghanaian migrants participate in trading activities chiefly because of the ability for both small and large-scale traders to source a wide range of trading wares to cater for the needs of buyers across the spectrum of social classes in Ghana.

Ghanaians in China engage in a wide range of activities key among them being the facilitation of trade between the two countries. Migrants invest in guest housing, wholesale and retail of both imports and exports from both countries. Ghanaians have taken advantage of business opportunities in China compared to their counterparts in Western Europe and North America, where an overwhelming majority are into paid employment. Significant volumes of remittances for household maintenance and investments in business activities in Ghana are recorded. These have led to the enhancement of livelihood activities by hitherto lower and middle social classes.

Subsidized or fully funded tertiary education opportunities in China have risen sharply in contemporary times. Pilling notes that there were an estimated 6,500 Ghanaian students studying in China in 2018 – making Ghana the top supplier of students, in Africa, to China. Noteworthy is the pursuit by Ghanaian students of qualifications in medicine and allied sciences in Chinese universities. For most Ghanaian students, ‘the opportunity to gain extra income by exporting items for sale in Ghana is an additional motivation’, according to Obeng. The human capital of Ghana is improved due to these migrants who also learn Chinese social norms of hard work, industry and social responsiveness.

Harnessing the benefits from the Ghana-China migration has the potential to enhance livelihoods, reduce poverty and smoothen social inequalities in Ghana, but the institutional, policy and behavioural conditioning factors need to be addressed. The Ghanaian state has found a potent economic partner for the development of critical infrastructure, trade and financial security. The future of these relations needs serious planning today so as to ensure mutual social, environmental and economic sustainability rather than dependency and exploitation.