Africa, Europe, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees

CAPE VERDE: Migration – a Key Aspect of the Country’s History

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Jun 18 2007 (IPS) - The small West African island nation of Cape Verde, which was uninhabited when Portuguese navigators discovered it in 1460, now has more citizens living abroad than at home. And growing numbers of women are joining the diaspora.

This small country of around 4,000 square kilometres has 476,000 people living on 10 islands, 640 kilometres off the coast of Senegal, and just over 500,000 living abroad.

Emigrants from Cape Verde, where nearly everyone is of mixed race, mainly descendants of African slaves and Portuguese colonists, were nearly all men until two decades ago. But little by little that has changed, Italian economist Marzia Grassi, a researcher at the University of Lisbon Social Sciences Institute (ISC), told IPS.

Grassi’s doctoral thesis at the University of Lisbon was the result of long years of research on Portuguese-speaking Africa in general and Cape Verde in particular – an area of study that in Europe is largely the terrain of Portuguese academics.

The author of several articles published in Portuguese and international magazines that specialise in development issues in Africa, Grassi coordinates the “Cape Verde Around the World” and “Moving Angola” projects in the ISC, in coordination with the Foundation for Science and Technology in Lisbon.

The first focuses on informal networks of goods in the Cape Verdean diaspora in Portugal and other countries, and the second focuses on informal trans-border movements in Angola.

Grassi, who wrote the book “Cabo Verde pelo Mundo: O Género na Diáspora Cabo-Verdiana” on gender and migration in relation to Cape Verde along with researcher Iolanda Évora at the Centre of Studies on Africa (CESA), emphasised that these migration flows “have unique characteristics that are more perceptible when Cape Verde’s history and adverse natural conditions are taken into account.”

The 547-year history of these islands “is one of abandonment and resettlement, and frequent droughts during which slaves were quickly sold off and free workers were forced to emigrate to other Portuguese colonies.”

What is new is that over the past two decades, “Cape Verdean women, who have traditionally played an important role in the islands’ economy and trade, have increasingly taken part in the phenomenon of emigration, even on their own” over the last 20 years, said Grassi, who added that she was interested in the human face of the process.

She described the book she published with Évora as “a compilation of case studies which mainly talks about people, including the threats and problems they face, but which also describes opportunities for development and explains what women take with them when they emigrate, things like music and culture in general.”

Just over half a million Cape Verdeans are living in other countries, with 250,000 in the United States, 106,000 in Portugal, 37,500 in the Netherlands, 35,000 in Angola, 22,500 in Senegal, and 50,000 distributed throughout Spain, Brazil, Canada, Italy and Germany.

In the case of Portugal, “official statistics indicate that in 1986, women made up nearly 35 percent of the Cape Verdean immigrant community, a proportion that had risen to 43 percent 20 years later,” said Grassi, who noted that “historically, men emigrated and sent home cash remittances, but today women also go overseas.”

To understand the phenomenon of emigration from Cape Verde, Grassi said it is indispensable to study the history of the islands, a strategic platform and link between Portugal and its former colonies in Africa.

She pointed out that Cape Verde was discovered by Portuguese captain Diogo Gomes in 1460, and that two years later, the islands began to be populated when Antonio de Noli reached the island of Santiago accompanied by his family and other Portuguese colonists from the southern regions of Alentejo and Algarve.

“The aim of the Portuguese was to create a white settler colony, like in the Azores and Madeira islands (in the Atlantic Ocean), but the difficult climate and the lack of grains, the foundation of the European diet at that time, kept that from happening,” she said.

Cape Verde was finally populated after Portuguese King Afonso V granted the Portuguese colonists authorisation to engage in the slave trade.

The royal edict gave the people of Cape Verde “the perpetual right” to engage in the slave trade “in all of the regions of the Gulf of Guinea” (present-day Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon), which meant that the islands were populated by slaves, free Africans who accompanied the slave traders, and mercenaries.

Thus, said Grassi, “all of the ethnic groups living in the Gulf of Guinea region took part, to differing degrees, in the emergence of the Cape Verdean population,” but “the high level of racial mixture essentially resulted from the relations between white masters and their female slaves or between the members of the clergy and their African concubines.”

The heavy migration flows began over a century ago, when Lisbon started to allow Cape Verdeans to freely leave the country and thousands of young people emigrated, mainly to the United States, Portugal and the Netherlands, to find a better life.

One hundred years later, after three decades of independence – Cape Verde became independent from Portugal in 1975 -, the United Nations announced (on Jun. 2) that Cape Verde would graduate from a Least Developed Country (LDC) to a Middle Income Country in 2008.

Cape Verde, which has per capita income of around 1,500 dollars, is considered an example in Africa in terms of human development. Analysts in Portugal point out that it has achieved a steady rate of development, thanks to good governance and a maturing democracy.

According to the latest available statistics, foreign investment in Cape Verde reached 180 million dollars in the first eight months of 2006, a figure that is projected to climb to 665 million dollars this year.

The investment has mainly gone into the construction of international airports on the islands of Santiago and São Vicente (only the international airport on Sal Island is currently capable of handling large passenger airliners) and the largest hotel in West Africa, with 850 beds, which is about to open on the Island of Boa Vista.

International tourism arrivals are expected to surpass 250,000 this year.

However, this encouraging information, “which demonstrates advances in macroeconomic terms, must be understood as merely statistics, in a country where 30 percent of the population is poor or very poor, which is why I don’t believe the flow of emigration will be stemmed,” said Grassi.

Besides, emigration “is part of the history of the people of Cape Verde, a nation that has the whole world as its territory, which has repercussions at all levels of people’s lives, especially in the structure of the family and in gender roles.”

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