Introduction

Remittance is one of the most perceptible forms of support that African migrants have always provided for their families back home. Studies show that the money such migrants send home is one of the largest sources of financial inflows to developing countries.1William Lacy Swing, “How Migrants Who Send Money Home Have Become a Global Economic Force,” World Economic Forum, June 14, 2018, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/06/migrants-remittance-global-economic-force/. Many migrant workers remit money back home despite their own precarious socioeconomic conditions in their host countries.2“Record High Remittances Sent Globally in 2018,” World Bank, April 8, 2019, https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2019/04/08/record-high-remittances-sent-globally-in-2018. They do so despite the fact that such remittances affect their quality of life and hamper the realization of their personal projects.3Peter Kankonde Bukasa, “Transnational Family Ties, Remittance Motives, and Social Death among Congolese Migrants: A Socio-Anthropological Analysis,” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 41, no. 2 (2010): 225–43.

It is now common knowledge that the Covid-19 pandemic has negatively affected livelihoods across societies, with migrants being one of the hardest hit groups. Many governments worldwide have reacted with draconian measures to contain the spread of the pandemic. A combination of states of emergency and lockdowns have featured as responses and preventive measures in various countries across the world. Drastic containment measures that could, under normal circumstances, be described as serious violations of citizens’ and migrants’ rights and freedoms have been introduced. These include the following:

  • Suspension of national and international flights;
  • Closure of national borders;
  • Curfews and restrictions on people’s movement;
  • Prohibition of social gatherings and convenings; and
  • Closure of nonessential services/businesses and educational institutions.

The lockdown measures imposed in many countries have not only restricted people’s freedom of movement but also disrupted their everyday lives. The costs of these stringent measures have been felt in all social strata. Various economic sectors have been adversely affected. One of the sectors that attracts many people, especially migrants, is that of banking and money transfer services. Indeed, the outbreak of the pandemic has significantly impacted business activities around the world, increasing the financial strain on migrants, who are providers of financial support to their relatives in Africa and elsewhere.

This essay is based on the cases of Congolese migrants living abroad, and their family members in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). My conversations over the telephone with some of these migrants helped me understand their experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic, including how the outbreak has impacted their ability to fulfill their remittance obligations.

The Impact of Migrants’ Remittances on the Survival of African Families

According to a report of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Africa received more than $60 billion in remittances in 2016, the third highest in the world, after the Asia Pacific and Latin America.4Justine Rodier, “La diaspora africaine envoie 36% d’argent en plus vers le continent qu’il y a dix ans,” Jeune Afrique, June 22, 2017, https://www.jeuneafrique.com/450215/societe/diaspora-dix-ans-largent-envoye-vers-lafrique-diaspora-a-progresse-de-36/. On the other hand, the World Bank estimates that remittances from diasporas to countries in sub-Saharan Africa totaled $49 billion in 2019, a decline compared to 2016.5“La diaspora africaine est devenue la principale source de financement du continent,” France Info Afrique, December 18, 2019, https://www.francetvinfo.fr/monde/afrique/economie-africaine/la-diaspora-africaine-est-devenue-la-principale-source-de-financement-du-continent_3747375.html. This decline is in tandem with the rise of antimigrant fervor in almost all the major receiving countries.

In most cases, large amounts of money sent as remittances are not accounted for in the statistics of the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the World Bank, because many African migrants rely on informal channels to send funds. Informal remittance channels include friends or relatives going back to their home countries on vacation or funds sent through informal agencies mushrooming in diaspora communities all over the world. These informal transfers represent between 35 and 75 percent of remittance flows. In Francophone Africa, Senegal takes first position among recipients of diaspora remittances, followed by the DRC.6“La diaspora,” France Info Afrique.

Family Ties and Remittance Pathways

Migration usually involves the help of close family members who provide various forms of support, including money and assistance in acquiring official documents necessary to travel.7Agbada Mangalu Mobhe, Migrations internationales, transferts des migrants et conditions de vie des ménages d’origine : Cas de la ville de Kinshasa (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium: Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2011). In this regard, migrants become human capital that has been invested in and, in return, the “investors” expect benefits in the form of remittances. The probability and quality of remittances are dependent on the closeness of family relationships, the continent of residence, work status, and the duration of time spent abroad.8Mangalu Mobhe, Migrations internationales.

Remittances are essential, as they help many families to satisfy their basic needs, such as food, accommodation, school fees, and clothing.9Rodier, “La diaspora africaine.” Through remittances, many Congolese citizens living in developed countries have bought land back home and built houses for their parents. Those who cannot afford the cost of building houses send money to their families to rent houses or apartments. Migrants also send various goods back home, such as vehicles, clothing, household appliances, computers, and mobile phones. Remittances also go toward paying for the health-care bills of chronically ill parents, relatives, or friends, as well as the funeral and burial expenses of close family members. Taking into account the excessive costs of such events for an extremely poor population, religious leaders in the DRC have recently pleaded with the government for the hastening of funerals imposed during the shutdown to be maintained even after the Covid-19 crisis.10“RDC,  Les confessions religieuses plaident pour un assouplissement de la mesure interdisant les cultes,” Radio Okapi, May 20, 2020, https://www.radiookapi.net/2020/05/20/actualite/societe/rdc-les-confessions-religieuses-plaident-pour-un-assouplissement-de-la.

Covid-19 Pandemic and the Impact of Draconian Measures on the Remittance Chain among Congolese Migrants

Since the imposition of the lockdown, the lives of many Congolese families that are dependent on remittances from their children living abroad have become miserable. The small pantries in their houses are empty: no more flour, no more oil, nothing at all.11“Coronavirus en RD Congo: Les transferts d’argent se tarissent,” TV5 Monde Info, May 16, 2020, https://information.tv5monde.com/video/coronavirus-en-rd-congo-les-transferts-d-argent-se-tarissent-et-les-garde-manger-se-vident. Congolese migrants from these families not only find it difficult to remit money but are also in financial crisis themselves, as many of them have lost their jobs due to their workplaces closing or being restricted to their homes as a result of shutdowns in their host countries. Their inability to work and fend for themselves and, by extension, provide financial support to family members back home has been a source of great anxiety, stress, and loss on both sides.

To illustrate this point, I refer to the case of a man living in France who lost his younger brother back home in the DRC. Tearful and heartbroken, this Congolese citizen residing in France shared the news of the passing of his little brother. Unfortunately, as a result of the restrictive lockdown measures in his host country, he could not send money to pay for the care of his brother, who was fighting for his life. Regrettably, time ran out and the younger brother died due to lack of care.

There is also another case of a Congolese migrant in South Africa, who had been struggling to pay rent and support his parents after losing his job during the lockdown. His parents back in the DRC had called to ask for financial assistance. Unfortunately, the man had no money, having lost his job because the security company which employed him had closed. Meanwhile, the situation in Kinshasa was getting tense. The landlord wanted money and refused to hear any of the family’s explanations. Under pressure to pay the rent and at risk of being evicted, the head of the family—the emigrant’s father—began staying away from the house. He only returned late at night when everyone was asleep to avoid being seen by the landlord. His son, who found himself unable to help due to a lack of financial resources, suffered serious emotional stress because of the situation.

The pain experienced by migrants in these difficult times is triggered by their fear of experiencing what Kankonde Bukasa refers to as “social death.”12Kankonde Bukasa, “Transnational Family Ties,” 225. Social death is an experience that migrants go through when they see themselves as failing to help their loved ones facing hardship or danger due to a lack of financial means. The cases cited above reflect the anguish migrants and families experience during pandemics and how such crises disrupt the social contract that binds them to their kin back home.

Conclusion

This essay has shown how the Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictions put in place to manage its spread have affected migrants’ capacity to provide financial support to their families back home. The cases described have illustrated how families who mainly relied on remittances were left stranded when faced with sickness or unpaid bills. The inability to secure shelter or afford medical treatment resulting in the loss of a loved one had a traumatic impact on both the migrant living abroad and the family back home. However, the situation is not so bleak in all cases. There are success stories of families who have done well with the financial support received from their relatives living abroad. They have invested in properties, transport, or other income-generating activities, thereby contributing to poverty reduction, empowering the family and improving their well-being, and enhancing the self-reliance and overall development of the community. These few stories about investing remittances in various sectors to create a source of steady income are in line with the popular saying: “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day; show him how to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” Remittances would make a significant difference in families if the assistance provided were efficiently used by beneficiaries to achieve financial independence. However, the quality of remittances is also dependent on the migrants’ country of residence, their legal status, and the kind of work they do in the host country.

African governments are gradually relaxing restrictions on movement and businesses imposed in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Even so, as the lockdown is being lifted across many countries worldwide, how will the many families that are dependent on remittances from relatives living abroad grapple with the disruptions caused by Covid-19? It follows that relatives living abroad will first have to recover their income-generating activities and meet their personal needs before sending money back home. This is not easy for migrants to achieve, and in the meantime their families back home will continue to struggle for survival.

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