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Migration, Mobility and Borders: the EU and West African Migrant Communities – Hannah Cross

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[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 71 (Winter 2009/10), pp. 46-51]

This research article outlines a PhD thesis in progress, entitled ‘Migration, Mobility and Borders: the EU and West African Migrant Communities’. It begins by introducing the research questions and the underpinning theory. Following this, I reflect on the fieldwork.

This thesis examines the dynamics of West African labour migration to Europe from the perspectives of sending communities in Senegal, the ‘holding zone’ in Mauritania, and the target destination in Spain. From diverse settings, labour migrants, so-called because they leave home in order to seek work, congregate in transit and in sites of recruitment that favour sub-Saharan workers. The migration is unorganised in the sense that travel, settlement, employment and return plans are mostly unknown at the outset. Its complexity is seen in the geographical range of sending households and eventual destinations, combined with unpredictable interims and outcomes. Differential forms of economic inclusion and exclusion emerge as a significant dynamic in the causes and consequences of migration and in the experiences of migrants. This is argued by examining migrants’ family histories of mobility, life chances and access to resources in the context of regional migration history.

The thesis considers who decides to migrate, how the decision is reached, for what reasons, and with what aims. Why are particular routes and destinations selected, and what shapes the passage to Europe? Correspondingly, it investigates the construction of state migration policies in Senegal, Mauritania and Spain. In Spain, management of undocumented migrants fluctuates between legalisation and expulsion. This reveals the tensions inherent in requiring labourers who are cheaper than national workers as a result of illegality and insecurity. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund implicitly promote the reproduction of migrant labour. They encourage northern countries to maintain low production costs, which have been achieved by receiving a regular supply of unfree human resources. Repression is, however, the more visible form of migration governance. European and US policy-makers and security agencies lead a governance network in favour of restricting the ‘threat’ of migration. Europe’s external borders are patrolled by FRONTEX[1]-coordinated security forces, which attempt to intercept and identify ‘illegal’ migrants. The ‘people in the middle’ informing this thesis, who slip through the nets of labour and asylum policy, are banned from leaving Africa’s shores. Such attempts to cross the Atlantic from Mauritania can result in detention or expulsion. The overlapping security dynamics of the EU migration regime and the US-led Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative produce a framework of war in Mauritania. This contrasts with gentler attempts at restriction of migration in Senegal. Deterrents here include stimulation of employment, anti-migration education, and co-development in the agricultural sector. These European-led initiatives oblige Senegal to prevent exit towards the north and although they display uneven relations, these efforts also address Senegal’s critical need to retain its youth.

While seemingly contradictory, the structuring of a global proletariat and repressive border security both restrict mobility and provide opportunities for contestation. How do the particular political economies of Senegal, Mauritania and Spain promote and restrict the mobility of migrants? The thesis analyses processes of becoming an illegal migrant and of entry to the labour market in the state and EU contexts. It identifies migrants’ struggles against repression, which include circumvention of controls, entry into the Senegal-Mauritania border economy, and informal trade and labour abroad. The thesis highlights instability both for clandestine and legal migrants, and a rapid increase in clandestinity as legal options close down. In spite of instability, development institutions and migration research institutes converge in promoting the use of remittances as a poverty alleviation strategy[2]. The thesis thereby considers the impact of emigration, failed migration and repatriation in households and sending communities. When does labour migration generate development, and when does it generate inequality and prop up households in underdeveloped communities? It questions whether successfully implemented remittance policy is set to perpetuate dispossession in migrant communities. More broadly, a historical context underpins the exploration of (under)development as a cause or consequence of migration.

Fieldwork among dispersed migrant communities

Fieldwork commenced with a three-month stay in Mauritania in the spring of 2007. In spring/summer 2008, Dakar became the main base for research in Lebu communities. There were short visits to Catalonia surrounding the Dakar stay, and a return visit to Mauritania in spring 2008. Table 1 illustrates the focus of research in each country.

Table 1

Country Location Context Focus of fieldwork
Senegal Thiaroye-sur-MerRufisque Sending country Sending households: changes in labour migration over time; economic and social resources; occupations and use of remittances; decision-making; destinations; legal and illegal channels; perceptions of labour migration to Europe and expectations
Mauritania NouakchottNouadhibou Transit country West African migrants: family and individual migration history; economic and social resources of sending household; past and present occupation; sending of remittances; decision-making; experiences with controls; perceptions of labour migration to Europe, aims and expectations
Spain BarcelonaSaltLleida Destination country West African migrants: family and individual migration history; economic and social resources of sending household; past and present occupation; sending of remittances; decision-making; experiences of journey and arrival, aims and expectations

Interviews in all locations consistently examined generational changes, including occupations and education of grandparents, parents, sisters and brothers; and family and village migration history. In Thiaroye-sur-Mer and Rufisque, families discussed use of remittances, the impact of restrictions on migration, and the effects of Spanish-Senegalese visa arrangements. Respondents also discussed the reasons for not wishing to migrate at all or proceed to Europe when applicable. This examination of migration dynamics has much in common with the work of Ellis and MacGaffey on Sub-Saharan Africa’s unrecorded international trade[3]. This is because at least some stages of migration, from conception of the journey to remitting funds, involve clandestine, unrecorded activity. My research considers migration as an economic phenomenon, for which Ellis and MacGaffey emphasise holistic study. For data collection, they discuss the use of snowball sampling among networks based on kinship, friendship and other ties. Furthermore, active participation of someone from the milieu is required and an assistant who can speak the local language. Patterns emerge and data can be systematised from detailed information on motivations, organisation, decisions, and strategies for coping with economic and political change[4].

The fieldwork included ‘participant observation’ during two West African journeys that incorporated significant transit towns and border crossings: the first in the Soninké regions of Mauritania, Senegal and Mali; and the second from Burkina Faso, through Mali, to the Senegalese coast. Discussions in bush taxis and at borders connected regional travel with Europe. Fishermen were asked about links between the fishing industry and clandestine emigration, and informed knowledge of the Atlantic crossing. Key observations on the journey also related to the movement of goods along the routes, linking migration with livelihoods and trade in the region. These encounters led to conceptions of migration that would underpin the development of questionnaires. Subsequent interviews about journeys in West Africa flowed and included discussions about the choice of particular routes. After these experiences, it was possible to enter processes of dissemination and feedback with professional contacts and respondents. By feeding back interpretations to participants, it would be more likely that “theory fits the reality(ies) of the respondents’ lives”[5]. Although time was limited in Barcelona, immersion in the ‘field’ of labour migration allowed sufficient mutual trust to develop for the development of life histories and for further observation of work and residence in Catalonian towns. Respondents described clandestine trade and employment, modes of assistance from compatriots or kin, and the continuation of informal exchanges.

The migration encountered during fieldwork navigates through networks in a loose sense, in that kin, compatriots and other associates may inform departure strategies and can be sought at the crossroads, but they act more as itinerant signposts than as known links in any sort of chain. In Nouadhibou, transit migrants for Europe have travelled from different regions in Ghana, Nigeria and other West African countries. They may have failed an attempt to go to the Canary Islands by boat or could have decided against the journey upon seeing the dangers. Entry to Europe may have resulted in deportation back to Mauritania as a ‘third country’. Despite the popularity of Barcelona as the target destination, in reality ‘successful’ migrants to Europe are also dispersed. For example, if clandestine migrants arrive in the Canary Islands and are not repatriated after being detained, they might be flown to different regions of the Spanish mainland and subsequently move towards promising locations of recruitment. It would be misleading to link transit migrants in Mauritania with a particular network in Africa or Europe.

Given the geographically dispersed origins of labour migrants, research in a sending community cannot offer a narrative of the provenance of non-networked West African workers in Europe. This is especially so when migrants diverge from the established channels, or are the first or only emigrants in a village. The research in Senegal does, however, indicate particularities to consider, such as non-financial means to emigrate and the effects of changes in the migration regime on development. It also adds to the puzzle of transit migration in Mauritania by examining which other options may be available to households and with what consequences. The Lebu communities in Thiaroye-sur-Mer and Rufisque have pioneered the ‘pirogue phenomenon’ in which small fishing boats navigate les clandestins to the Canary Islands. The failure of some of these journeys and a focus on the Senegalese coastline from European and US patrols, however, have led underemployed youth towards Mauritania to seek work or to embark on a shorter, less interrupted Atlantic voyage. In other cases, young people may be repatriated or decide to stay, and a single household may be affected by both legal and illegal emigration. The fieldwork in Barcelona included interviews among recent arrivals who had passed through Mauritania, Libya, Algeria and Morocco from West Africa. It expanded to the predominantly African municipality of Salt to interview longer-established migrants and included life histories. In a similar light to the Lebu communities, some migrants’ stories include passage in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou. Life histories offer insight into the success of some strategies over others, and their impact on overall life chances.

A Ghanaian migrant in Nouadhibou, in response to asking him about developments over the preceding year, quipped – “it always changes; it always stays the same”. He was a ‘transit’ migrant, who had been living on the peninsula for over five years. The research design coincided with the height of Atlantic boat journeys to the Canary Islands and was considered by some observers to be topical. Yet I consider the means of emigration as a vehicle, bearing people with a history and a load of social dynamics in the journey from one place to another. As revealing as the vehicle is and the route it follows, its contents hold the true fascination. Migrants’ interactions with states and the security or labour regimes that they enter provide the focus, rather than the mechanisms of a particular network or stream viewed conveniently as a single socio-cultural entity. The thesis examines the process of migration in three countries, but it is not a study of transnationalism, nor is it comparative. It examines the causes and consequences of multifarious trajectories, including staying and return.

Hannah Cross is a PhD student at the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds


[1] Frontières Extérieures: European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union

[2] See D. Ratha. Policy Brief: Leveraging Remittances for Development. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2007; G. Daffé. ‘Les transferts d’argent des migrants sénégalais: Entre espoir et risques de dépendance’ in M. C. Diop (dir.). Le Sénégal des migrations: Mobilités, identités et societés. Dakar-Paris-Nairobi: CREPOS-Karthala-ONU Habitat, 2008

[3] Ellis, S. and J. MacGaffey. ‘Research on Sub-Saharan Africa’s Unrecorded International Trade: Some Methodological and Conceptual Problems’, African Studies Review, 1996, 39 (2): 19-41

[4] S. Ellis and J. MacGaffey 1996, pp25-27

[5] Bailey et al., cited in J. Baxter and J. Eyles. ‘Prescription for research practice? Grounded theory in qualitative evaluation’, Area, 1999, 31 (2): 179-181, p. 180

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