Mapping the city for youth migrants

By Gemma Todd

Migration has often been identified as a central component of urbanisation, and with the rise of a 'mobility' paradigm, whereby movement is recognised as a rising necessity, the focus is on why people move and the nature of such movement. Novel innovations now enable our speed of movement, while services and infrastructure continues to build networks between spaces, people, and opportunities. However, in the case of Sub-Saharan Africa the question has been raised on what happens when urban agglomerations hosting migrants fail to secure livelihoods (see Bryceson, 2011)? Research in migration showcases the articulation of circular patterns of movement, rising rates of return, and greater insecurities in whether goals are achieved. Such raises an additional question - to what extent are those using, adopting, and experiencing, migration becoming stuck within such a mobility paradigm? Further, what do migrants do to get them out of this trap and achieve aspirations?

A recent report by UN-Population (2013) suggests a higher proportion of youths migrating to urban spaces are girls. The experience of migration is highly engendered - with reasons of migration, opportunities, and experiences, varying based on gender. Despite such figures when discussions are raised on youths in the city we continue to focus prominently on boys. Boys occupy the public spaces and occupations frequently place them in the public sphere.

While carrying out research last year I focused on the livelihoods of youth migrants whom engaged in circular migration, having left their rural homes the youths had migrated to cities and returned through their own choosing or through factors out of their control. Interestingly the young girls whom had used migration as a livelihood strategy, a means to reduce vulnerability, ended up working as domestic workers or exchanging their bodies to survive. From a young age, such girls become an invisible population within the city. Their spaces are confined to new workplaces of which they are to call home, and their mental geography of the city remains confined to where work dictates one to go - the market place or select shops and back. The responsibility such migrant workers are placed with is broad, responsible for home functions, ensuring remittances can be made, and economic change can be articulated. However, achieving such responsibilities was constrained by the engendered nature of migration and city life. Experiences were shared on how one was forced to return after getting pregnant, the father refused to accept he was the father, and how one’s boss may force sexual relations in the workplace. Within such invisible spaces, such private spaces, the young domestic workers became objects to fulfill sexual desires, used, and returned home with uncertain prospects as to whether mobility will continue to be a reality.

With attention focusing on youths we need new evaluations. With the young population reaching a high and the scope of youth un-, and under, employment, requiring action, whether in Cairo, Accra, Johannesburg, or Nairobi we are presented with an image of a 'jobless' generation. However, worldwide, youths have been raising innovative solutions in order to meet livelihood needs, interconnect to global networks, and create new opportunities. However, I wonder whether conceptualisation needs to focus on a 'lost generation'. With youths migrating to the city they are forced to engage in grey zones for survival. On the one hand, immoral economies are used to make money, pushing migrants to steal and thieve in order to adapt to urban life and the demands of home. On the other hand, immorality emerges as youths become fixed in urban spaces. When investigating private urban spaces, the spaces whereby behind closed doors urban life is reproduced daily, novel realities emerge which raise critique over the idea of a highly mobile age and showcase the slowing of time and limited nature of urban space. New tools mapping the use of, and practices in, urban space need to include migrants.

Photo credit: Cameron Bennett

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