Young Ghanaians in Europe travel a lot “at home”: why their mobility is important
Young migrants make up more than 20% of the youth population across the European Union. In cities like Hamburg in Germany, half of children and young people under the age of 18 have an immigrant background (50.4%), which means that they or their parents were born abroad.
This means that millions of young people across Europe have connections to places other than the countries where they live. They keep in touch with their friends and family abroad through the Internet. They are fluent in the languages of their country of origin and the country where they reside. And they get involved in the politics of the “home” country through diaspora organizations. In other words, young migrants live transnationally – their lives are a constellation of people, places and practices across the world.
People’s lives and identities are not necessarily tied to a single nation-state. Migrants can be both integrated and connected to their “home”.
Researchers have been studying the transnational life of migrants for decades. But one thing they overlooked is how physically mobile young migrants are.
Recent research shows that young migrants visit their countries of origin with surprising frequency. More than half young migrants from several European countries return “home” at least once a year.
Our research project takes a closer look at this mobility and how it affects the lives of young migrants. We focus on young people of Ghanaian origin in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Ghanaian. The project includes ethnographic case studies in the four countries and a large-scale survey of secondary school students in Europe.
Ethnography case study in Germany included 20 young men and women (aged 15 to 25) who live in Hamburg. Some were born in Ghana, others in Germany, and all were mobile between the two countries. The small sample size allowed us to follow the lives of young people for over a year. In this way, we were able to explore in depth their mobility and its effects. This included accompanying them to Ghana to understand what is happening during their visits and why it matters.
Our research shows that youth movements – or what we call ‘mobility trajectories‘- are very diverse. While many young people stay in Ghana when their parents migrate, some migrate to Europe themselves. Others grow up in Europe with parents who have migrated. And many young people living in Europe frequently visit Ghana, regardless of their own migration history.
For the young people in our case study from Germany, traveling to Ghana means different things.
What this means changes over time as young people move back and forth. It also changes depending on where they go, who they visit and what happens during their travels.
Akosua (19) was born and raised in Hamburg and has visited Ghana for five summers in a row. She found her time there boring because she didn’t have any local friends. But on a recent trip, Akosua attended makeup school in a busy city salon. There she befriended young local women. Together they learned new skills and compared life between Ghana and Germany. Through this experience Akosua got to know Ghana as an independent young woman. His trip opened up new perspectives on the opportunities Ghana could offer him in the future.
Travel to Ghana also helps young people reflect on their own development. Ella was born in Hamburg but grew up mainly in Ghana until she was 16. At 20, Ella returned to Ghana for the summer. Family and friends commented on how much she had changed since moving to Germany.
People said that I had grown up, that I was becoming more independent, more serious in life.
Ella’s trip was an important transition in her life: she realized that she was no longer a child, but a woman.
Mobility also allows young people to connect with their families and their heritage in ways they cannot do remotely. Esra (19) was born and raised in Hamburg and made her first trip to Ghana when she was 17. There she met relatives she had only seen in photos and visited her parents’ hometown. After her trip, Esra said to me: “Before, I was like, ‘Never mind, I know my mother is from Ghana’. But now I know where my mother was in Ghana, where my father was in Ghana. It’s more real than when you hear about it ”.
“Getting to know Ghana in a different way”
The young people in our study had various travel experiences in Ghana – they went to rural and urban places, visited relatives and friends, felt out of place and at home. Some traveled to Ghana every year, others every few years, while a handful did so once or twice.
All of these trips have shaped young people’s relationships with Ghana. They changed the way young people saw the country and how often they wanted to go there. And they shaped the role young people envisioned playing in their lives.
Akosua wanted to return to Ghana to volunteer and “get to know Ghana in a different way”. Ella was aiming for an international career between Ghana and Europe. And Esra couldn’t wait to return to Ghana to spend more time with her family. They all imagined living transnational lives between two – if not several – countries.
Young migrants are not satisfied with maintaining transnational relations and activities at a distance. Their trips “home” help them to create and actualize their relationship with the countries of origin of their families. The people, places and events they encounter on their travels give them inspiration, connection and opportunity – and teach us something about what it means to be mobile global citizens.