Hot off the presses ... A new book on Africans in Thailand
My colleague, Supang Chantavanich of Chulalongkorn University, and I have a new edited volume on African Migration to Thailand: Race, Mobility, and Integration. Routledge published it earlier this month.
The genesis of this volume
Ideas for books do not fall from the sky. This volume also did not materialize out of thin air. It was inspired by the arrival of several Nigerian and Kenyan graduate students at Chulalongkorn University in 2018. Many of these students received scholarships from the Thai government under the Thai–Africa Partnership for Sustainable Development. Several African trainees were also supported to visit Thailand for internships in development, particularly agriculture and husbandry. These initiatives are an outgrowth of the 2013 Look West Policy, which marked a new chapter in the diplomatic relationships between Thailand and several African countries.
The Kenyan and Nigerian students told us about other Africans in Bangkok: Somali and Sudanese asylum seekers and entrepreneurs from different parts of Africa. The Thai students also noticed a variety of young African men playing football on campus.
The faculty and researchers at the Asian Research Center for Migration (ARCM) encouraged the African students to create social networks with the African community and start collecting data. We thought that the African students were well positioned to access the African community, gain the migrants’ trust, and use the collected data to inform their master's theses and doctoral dissertations.
It seemed that it would be easiest to approach the Africans playing football on campus or observing Thai students playing friendly football matches. Indeed, the first encounter with the African football players was quite successful. They were eager to chat with a fellow African. However, subsequent attempts to have more formal interviews were not received as enthusiastically. The footballers became suspicious of our student and wondered why he was so interested in them.
Other groups of African migrants were approached by our students and researchers, including asylum seekers, traders in clothes and precious stones, and church workers. We were also fortunate to work with a Nigerian doctoral student who eagerly agreed to be part of this project. He has been working in Thailand as a teacher for several years and offered great insights and connections to the African community in Bangko.
A note on the research process
The research team employed a range of qualitative data collection techniques, including participant observation, in-depth semi-structured interviews, and focus group discussions. Several members of the research team also engaged in participant observation at meetings and workshops set up by legal aid organizations serving African asylum seekers and migrant advocacy agencies. Muslim migrants invited researchers to join them for iftar, the fast-breaking meal during the holy month of Ramadan. Through these home visits, researchers were able to observe daily life of urban refugees and migrants in Bangkok. Using participant observation techniques, researchers were able to understand the studied migrants in a more casual way, without the formality of a structured interview. The combination of informal conversations during participant observation and formal ethnographic interviews provided an opportunity to get a more in-depth insight into their lives.
Careful measures were taken to ensure the study participants’ anonymity. This was important to the research team since we witnessed how cautious many of our interlocutors were to not be identified by strangers. Although the interviewed refugees and asylum seekers were quite comfortable naming the neighborhoods they lived in and the streets they walked, we took some precautions and changed many of the details they shared to further anonymized the data.
Much has been written about reflexivity and positionality of the researcher/s conducting qualitative studies. After all, research is shaped by both researcher/s and study participant/s. In positionality theory, it is acknowledged that because we have multiple overlapping identities, we make meaning from various aspects of those identities (Kezar 2002). The researchers had much in common with the study participants. Several were born, raised, and educated in different African countries. Two of the researchers were migrants themselves: one to Thailand and one to the United States. The research team included both men and women of different ages and different expertise in migration studies. The team included six emerging scholars hailing from Kenya, Nigeria, Colombia, and Thailand. Four senior scholars from Thailand and the United States (via Poland) provided guidance to the younger colleagues and analyzed the data.
Herding experts and polishing text
Anybody who has ever edited an anthology or served as a journal editor will tell you that editing other people's work is both a thankless and a rewarding pursuit. Sounds contradictory, doesn't it? It is thankless and difficult because it often feels like herding cats to make sure that authors adhere to a timeline. It is difficult especially when contributors hailing from different cultural backgrounds conceptualize time and timelines differently. But at the same time it is rewarding to see chapters contributed by diverse authors come together under the watchful eye of editors. It is especially rewarding when the contributors are emerging scholars embarking on their first publication in English. Here is where the editors struggle to preserve the original voice of the authors while rendering their texts in publishable quality English.
The first publication on African migration to Thailand
The volume we produced is the first book-length publication on Africans in Thailand. To our knowledge nobody has tackled this issue yet. While there are many publications on Africans in other parts of Asia, especially China, Africans in Thailand have not caught the attention of migration scholars yet. We hope that the readers will appreciate our efforts to put this exploratory research on migration scholars' radar.
Much remains to be done
The book provides but a glimpse at the issues facing African migrants and Thai policy-makers as well as migrant advocates and migration scholars interested in this relatively new group of migrants to Thailand.
We certainly need to know more about these newcomers to Thailand. Are they immigrants or sojourners? Are they circular migrants? Is circular migration a strategy many Africans use because there are no other options? Or would Africans who established transcontinental enterprises want to continue to move freely between Africa and Thailand even if an option to reside long-term in Thailand was available? Perhaps the circular mobility suits the niche economy migrants?
There is also much we still do not know about asylum seekers from Africa, especially Somalia and Sudan, who are brought to Thailand, a country that is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, by human smugglers. Some of the protagonists in this volume did not know where they were going, others did not understand that they would become undocumented migrants and would have to struggle to make a living in Thailand. Were they making an informed decision to seek refuge in Thailand? Or were they deceived by smugglers?
The research that informs this volume focused mainly on African migrants and their perceptions of discrimination, othering, and racism. Where do these attitudes stem from? Do they mirror attitudes towards Africans in other parts of Asia? But what about members of the general public? In order to fully understand attitudes towards Africans, we must also study members of the wider Thai society. The perceptions as expressed by African migrants themselves offer but one side of the story. We must understand better the origins of the construction of blackness in contemporary Thailand.
Few Thai people have had any meaningful relationships with Africans and their opinions about Black people are usually formed on the basis of hearsay or distorted portrayals of mixed-race protagonists of Thai soap operas. Some writers believe that things are changing and younger, more cosmopolitan Thais have much more positive attitudes towards mixed-race actors and entertainers. Thai-Mali vlogger Natthawadee 'Suzie' Waikalo has been gaining media coverage and TikTok followers among Thais since the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. Rusameekae Fagerlund, a gay TV talk show host and actor, who has Senegalese, Thai, and American ancestry has also gained many fans among young Thais. To what extent the support on social media will extend to real life remains to be seen. Natthawadee Waikalo was fired from her job, because her physical characteristics and demeanor allegedly made the company look bad.
These attitudes do not bode well for integration, but we do not know much about integration, economic or socio-cultural, of Africans residing in Thailand. Our exploratory research suggests that while Somalis, Nigerians, and others survive in Thailand, they seem to operate in the niche economy, live in ethnic enclaves, and are not part of the Thai social fabric.
We could go on listing topics that need migration scholars’ attention, but even the most comprehensive list of research topics is not enough. Attention needs to be also drawn to methodologies that would ensure high-quality research benefiting all concerned. If African diaspora is to benefit from the research, members of the local African communities need to be involved in different types of community-based participatory research.
While the African community in Thailand is still very small, the statistical information on African migrants, including the diversity of African communities, is very limited. The Thai Census Bureau does not collect data similar to the information included in the American Community Survey (ACS), the premier source for detailed population and housing information about US residents. The ACS provides detailed analysis of the foreign-born population in the United States, including data on nativity, length of time in the country, educational attainment, homeownership, facility in heritage language/s and English, and many others. This data helps local officials, community leaders, and businesses to understand the changes taking place in their communities. The Thai Census might want to emulate data gathering strategies deployed by other immigration countries.
Research and data are essential, but they mean very little if not accompanied by actions. Who needs to spring to action? The simple answer is everybody: members of the African diaspora, Thai policy-makers, law enforcement, local community members, migrant advocates, and journalists, to give just a few examples. While rights-based immigration and integration policies at the national level are important, action at the community level where the web of local relationships determine the immigrant experience, is equally if not more valuable.