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Review of Migrants, Borders and Global Capitalism / African Migrations


By Peter Lawrence

Migrants, Borders and Global Capitalism: West African labour mobility and EU borders. Hannah Cross. London and New York: Routledge, 2013, Hardback ISBN: 978-0-415-62915-7; 2016, Paperback ISBN: 978-1-138-67284-0

African Migrations: Patterns and Perspectives. Abdoulaye Kane and Todd H. Leedy (editors), Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013, ISBN: 976-0-253-00576-2

Almost daily there is news of more migrant lives lost on capsized boats carrying them from West and North Africa to Europe. So why do African migrants continue to risk their lives to find work in Europe, and what happens to them if they succeed in crossing the Mediterranean, the ‘migrants’ graveyard’, and they reach the new gateways to Europe in Italy and Greece? Hannah Cross’s book, based on her doctoral work at Leeds University, in the course of addressing these questions, details the contradictions and processes of African migration and in doing so slays many myths currently being purveyed by anti-immigrant parties and movements in Europe. Migration is not simply about the difference in wages between sending and receiving countries. It is a complex mix of economic social and cultural factors which motivate people to leave their home. It has to be seen in the context of the condition of global capitalism which demands ever cheaper and unorganised labour and creates the conditions where people are forced to move as their livelihoods are destroyed by the very global forces that are unleashed upon them – land dispossession and trawler fishing being just two that feature in Cross’s analysis. Such migrant labour is not the free labour of Marxist discourse, but ‘unfree’ in the sense that it is subject to controls on such matters as numbers, period of contract and therefore length of working visas. Such controls on ‘legal’ migration encourage ‘illegal’ settlement with all the benefits this brings to unscrupulous employers able to impose low wage slavery on those vulnerable to deportation. In that sense the capitalism of labour free to sell its labour power, has now embraced unfree labour into its global system, essentially as a new reserve army subject to controls, but also as a means of control over the local labour force, too.

Cross’s book sets migration in historical perspective focusing on people from Senegal and Mauritania, and their communities in Spain. She shows how emigration began as in so many colonies, with recruitment by plantations and then moved to longer distance migration to neighbouring countries and increasingly, over time, to Europe. The story of dispossession is graphically illustrated by the decline of artisanal fishing as a result of agreements made between the Senegal government and European and Asian trawling companies that separated labour from the means of production and generated pressures to migrate. Her accounts of the process of migration to Europe also graphically illustrate the precariousness of the enterprise, whether having to earn a living along the route in order to pay the costs of travel or risking being thrown overboard into the Mediterranean by a ship’s captain avoiding arrest for trafficking.

As more go through the arduous process of migration, find work and remit some of their earnings, emigration becomes a rite of passage for young people, first men and then increasingly women. Migration becomes an investment by those left behind so that selecting who migrates and supporting them through this rite involves critical family and community decisions Those left behind increasingly depend on remittances to survive and these form a new circuit where communities that do not produce cash crops end up exporting labour to Europe. This is a cycle of migration and return and not one of permanent emigration, even if that becomes the outcome through economic necessity both at the sending and receiving ends.

At the receiving end, Cross shows clearly how the presence of migrant labour is central to the reproduction of the capitalist mode of production globally. She shows how the labour market for the influx of cheap unfree migrants becomes a dual one with different employment conditions and rights for local and immigrant labour. Effectively, the State’s role becomes one of controlling the entry of immigrants and ensuring that they are exploited more than locals. The post 9/11 build-up of security to counter the threat of terrorism treats all migrants as part of this threat, enabling a greater level of control to be politically justified on security grounds, but reinforcing the position of migrants as unfree. The EU’s objective now is to push these border controls back to the sending countries’ borders and Cross shows how Mauritania in particular has been co-opted to the degree that it acts as a ‘holding zone’ to control migration to Europe, something that becomes privatised as guards take payments for allowing people to emigrate.

Cross presents a very rich account of the migration process both at the sending and receiving ends and does this within a clear analytical framework which places migration firmly in the context of the demands of global capitalism but never allows this contextual and analytical framework to obscure the human experiences and costs which are documented from her interviews with migrants. This is a book which ought to be prescribed reading for any EU Interior Minister, and of course for anyone concerned with migration issues, both academically and practically.

The volume edited by Kane and Leedy comprises 14 absorbing accounts of migrations and migrant communities. They reinforce and complement many of the perspectives and analyses presented by Cross. It is very clear from this collection too, that migration is a complex phenomenon that cannot simply be explained by categorising migrants into either those fleeing conflict and / or oppression and those who move for economic reasons. Many of the case studies confirm the picture Cross paints of the migration process with some fascinating accounts of migrant communities in the USA. These studies show that people who leave their homeland do not want to do it, do it as a rite of passage, and want to go back regularly, and preferably permanently. They show that common views of migrants conflict with the views migrants have of themselves, what they are doing and why.

An important issue in both books, and especially in Kane and Leedy’s collection, is that migration has created a dynamic diaspora in which migrants see themselves as global citizens moving between their migrant home and their home of origin, or of their parents ‘origin and also conflicted as to where they really belong. This has been the lot of migrants and migrant communities everywhere through the ages. These two books present a fascinating insight into African migration and show that migration policy in receiving countries has to move from being constructed through the lens of control, and instead through the lens of understanding what actually happens on the ground and why. These two books make a major contribution to developing that understanding.


[From Leeds African Studies Bulletin 78 (Winter 2016/17), pp. 188-191]

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