Migrants not always better off

Many households in Nigeria have at least one family member living abroad. When they come home for holidays, spending money around them, it is easy to believe they all are successful. This is not always the case, according to NAI guest researcher David Agu.

Most migrants from Nigeria are in the US or UK, but more recently they have also been going to other European countries, as well as to South Africa. Their lives vary greatly, obviously, because of their status. A skilled worker, such as a medical doctor or a university professor, receives a much higher salary in his new country than he or she would in Nigeria. Unskilled workers are not always better off in their new country.

“However, in Nigeria we don’t always understand that people don’t pick up money off the street abroad, they work for it. When someone comes home to celebrate Christmas and spends a lot of money, we tend to believe that the person made it big and that everyone becomes successful once he or she leaves Nigeria. People fail to see that the visitor might have had several jobs and saved for years to be able to pay for a visit home to Nigeria. This feeling is also compounded by the exchange rate and purchasing power disparities, where the buying power of a dollar in the US is much less than the value of the same dollar in Nigeria,” David Agu remarks.

Millions migrated

David Agu was part of the World Bank team that in 2009 conducted a survey that concluded that in 25 per cent of 2, 251 Nigerian households, at least one member had migrated. On aggregate, this means that 7.5 million households in Nigeria have at least one family member living abroad. Now he uses the data for his research.

“They contain a lot of information on the households, but also about the migrants. For instance, what they are doing in their new country and what they left behind.”

Costly to migrate

He is especially interested in  the economic situation  before a household member decided to leave. Was it because of extreme poverty, or the reverse, that the household was wealthy enough to help the migrant?

“l have no answer yet, but my guess is that wealthy families are more likely to produce migrants. To move abroad and establish oneself in another country is costly. Really poor households just can’t afford this,” David Agu says.

Debt must be paid first

Poorer families have no option but to let middlemen help with the migrant’s initial costs. Often, this person is a Nigerian migrant who has lived abroad for many years and who has the necessary knowledge and contacts to facilitate the movement and settlement of the newcomer.

“However, the middleman doesn’t help out of charity. He or she wants something back and this means that the family has to wait many years until the migrant can send money back home. The debt to the middleman must be paid first.”

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