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Cape Verde: Towards the End of Emigration?

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Cape Verde: Towards the End of Emigration?

Few, if any, countries have experienced emigration as extensively as Cape Verde. The diaspora outnumbers the resident population, and virtually every family has emigrant members. The importance of migration makes the country particularly vulnerable to the tightening of immigration policy in Europe and North America. Recent decades have been marked by declining emigration, increasing population growth, and considerable migration pressure.

Shifting Directions of Emigration

Cape Verde is an archipelago of nine inhabited islands off the coast of West Africa with a population of about 450,000. From their discovery around 1460 until 1975, the islands were a Portuguese colony. Large-scale emigration started in the 1800s, when Cape Verdeans took part in a great trans-Atlantic migration, motivated by recurrent episodes of drought and famine. In the 1920s the introduction of immigration quotas in the United States led to a redirection of migration flows to Portugal, West Africa, and South America. Under Portuguese colonial rule, there was also large-scale indentured labor migration to plantations on São Tomé and Príncipe, an island colony in the Gulf of Guinea.

Around 1960, Cape Verdeans joined the northbound flows of labor migrants to Western Europe. Portugal remained an important destination, primarily because Portuguese emigration to Northwest Europe created a demand for unskilled labor in Portugal. Many Cape Verdeans moved onwards from Portugal, primarily to the Netherlands.

The most recent figures, based on questions about emigration in the 2000 census, indicate that about half of all emigrants in the period 1995-2000 went to Portugal. The second most important destination was the United States, followed by France and the Netherlands. During the same period, there was also significant migration to Italy, Spain, and Luxembourg.

More than a century of emigration has created Cape Verdean diaspora communities in about 25 countries across Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Estimating the size of the diaspora populations is complicated, and often the available data are not directly comparable. It is estimated that the number of people with Cape Verdean ancestry in the United States, including both migrants and their descendants, is higher than in any other country. However, the number of first-generation Cape Verdeans is probably higher in Portugal than in the United States.

The Aspiration to Emigrate

The desire to work abroad is prevalent in Cape Verde. The government's quarterly employment surveys include a question about the wish to emigrate, and typical results show that more than half of the respondents have this wish (with fluctuations over time and between islands). Statistical analyses demonstrate that being unemployed, having relatives abroad, and receiving remittances are factors that contribute to the wish to emigrate. The percentage of prospective emigrants declines markedly with age and with the level of education.

The widespread desire to emigrate cannot be explained exclusively by economic or demographic factors. The idea of emigration and return as a path to prosperity is a deeply rooted aspect of Cape Verdean society. When talking about their wish to emigrate, most Cape Verdeans relate to emigration as a "package" of expected events: going abroad, working hard, returning with savings and securing a better future at the place of origin. As in most cases, the original intention to return often fades over time. However, there are a substantial number of return migrants whose wealth bolsters young people's desire to emigrate.

Cultural explanations of the wish to emigrate can also be found in Cape Verdeans' perception of their own country. Even with a standard of living that is among the highest in Africa, the notion of Cape Verde as a place of inescapable poverty is pervasive. The persistent lack of rain, the smallness and remoteness of the country, and the constant exposure to European and American lifestyles through contact with emigrants all add to this. Indeed, much of the wealth that is visible in the form of fancy cars and large houses comes from working abroad.

Decline and Feminization

Since independence from Portugal, the emigration aspirations of Cape Verdeans have been challenged by increasingly restrictive immigration policies in the countries of destination. Migration flows have fallen substantially, from an average annual population loss of two per cent in the early 1970s to about 0.5 per cent in the early 1990s. Partly as a result of this, the population growth rate has tripled from the 1970s to the 1990s, reaching almost 2.5 per cent per year. Cape Verdean authorities expect emigration flows to decline further in the coming decades.

Paralleling the decline of emigration flows, there has been a shift in the gender balance in favor of women. There are several reasons for this. First, there has been a change from individual labor migration to family-related migration. Many Cape Verdean men who settled in Northern Europe in the 1960s and 1970s brought their wives and children in the 1980s. More recently, family formation migration has come to constitute an important form of migration, particularly to the United States and Northern Europe. In most cases, it is women from Cape Verde who go abroad to marry and thereby obtain a residence permit.

A second reason for the feminization of emigration flows has been the growth of independent labor migration by women. Italy, Portugal, and Spain have all become important destinations for Cape Verdean domestic workers. While the demand for unskilled male immigrant labor has generally fallen throughout Europe, there has been a rising demand for female domestic workers in Southern Europe. This has resulted in considerable emigration flows from Cape Verde, both documented and undocumented.

Increasing Migration Pressure

The growing mismatch between desires to emigrate and the restricted opportunities to do so have become a significant problem in Cape Verde. One of the outcomes has been increasing undocumented migration, primarily in the form of overstaying tourist visas. Many Cape Verdeans have been able to regularize their status later, especially in countries where there have been regularization programs (e.g., Portugal and Italy). Others have led an undocumented life for many years (e.g., in the United States or France), and their only complaint to relatives in Cape Verde has been the impossibility of going home on holidays. These factors have had a significant impact on the attitude of prospective migrants. First of all, many have the belief that once there, "getting your papers sorted out" is only a question of time. Second, it is a commonly held view that working and residing illegally is tolerated as long as one does not get into trouble with the police. This has created a strong demand for tourist visas by people who intend to stay permanently in Europe.

As it has become increasingly difficult to secure admission to European Union countries, Cape Verdeans have taken advantage of their dispersed networks. Because most people have relatives in more than one European country, it has been possible to apply for a tourist visa where the prospect of being granted one is highest, and then move to another country where it is easier to work illegally and/or to regularize one's situation. However, the situation has become more difficult since the Schengen countries began joint handling of short-term visa applications in 1995.

Young people in low-paying jobs who have never left Cape Verde are very rarely granted visas, and this has led to a great demand for false employment certificates and bank statements. The pressure of large numbers of fraudulent applications seems to have resulted in restrictive processing that affects all applicants. Even people who have worked in Europe for several decades and receive a European pension have had their applications for tourist visas turned down.

Undocumented migration by means of illegal entry, as opposed to overstaying visas, seems to be virtually inexistent among Cape Verdeans. However, the archipelago has been used as a stepping-stone for mainland Africans who are smuggled onwards to the Canary Islands.

The Future of the Diaspora

The tightening of immigration control in Europe and North America affects not only the rates of emigration and population growth, but also Cape Verde's relationship with its diaspora. For a country like Cape Verde, with very limited export potentials, the question is not least an economic one. In the late 1990s, remittances constituted 25-30 percent of the country's income. Furthermore, emigrants returning to their homeland on holiday made a significant contribution to income from transportation and tourism, which accounted for another 25 percent of national income. Finally, emigrant communities were important for securing government transfers (development aid), which represented about 20 percent of national income.

Migrants' transfers have increased considerably during the 1990s, at an average of more than 10 percent per year. What will happen to remittance flows when emigration declines is an open question. The Netherlands can be seen as a case that indicates what the future might bring. There is a well-established Cape Verdean community, but migration from Cape Verde has been dramatically reduced as a result of the European state's restrictive immigration policy. In the short run, the remittance flows can be expected to continue increasing. This is because many middle-aged emigrants are planning to retire in Cape Verde, and will thereby channel their pensions back to their homeland.

Further ahead, the prospects are more worrying. In the Netherlands, the second generation already accounts for 40 percent of the population of Cape Verdean origin. Compared to the first generation, the second generation is far less likely to send remittances or to retire in Cape Verde. From 1990 to 2000, the Netherlands' share of total remittances to Cape Verde fell from 20 percent to 12 percent (Figure 2).


Origins of remittance inflows, Cape Verde, 1990 and 2000
Source: Banco de Cabo Verde. 1991-2001

For Cape Verde as a whole, the effects of reduced emigration may be dampened by the diversity of its diaspora communities. For instance, the communities in Southern Europe continue to grow and include a large number of single women who remit regularly to their children and other close relatives. Migration to the United States has also been relatively stable over the last decade, securing a large inflow of remittances. There have, however, been significant restrictions in Portuguese immigration policy during the last year, and U.S. immigration procedures have become much more cumbersome and time-consuming in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

Cape Verde is one of very few countries to have experienced emigration on such a vast scale, and it is particularly vulnerable to the tightening of immigration policy in Europe and North America. Declining emigration, increasing population growth, and considerable migration pressure have all loomed large in recent decades, and look set to play important roles in Cape Verde's future.


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