By: Dr. Ibrahima Guissé

Sociologist, Associate researcher at the Institute of Sociological Research (IRS), University of Geneva

Chief Executive Officer of Rencontre Africaine pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme (RADDHO) - NGO with ECOSOC status - at the United Nations in Geneva 

While cross-border movement for trade, commerce, agriculture and herding has always been the reality for the peoples of the Sahel, since the 2000s a new form of migration has been added to the circulatory networks at work in the vast Saharan-Sahelian area. This new form is the so-called clandestine migration of young Saharan people who idealize the countries of final destination – in this case in Europe – which they imagine as Eldorado.

1. Illegal migration and the internalization of risk

While there are regular emigrations among young people (for family reunification, further education and training etc.), some young sub-Saharans for various reasons, resort to illegal migration, by land routes or by sea. In West Africa, particularly in Senegal and Mauritania, young people increasingly see illegal migration as an adventurous way to reach the international labor market and ‘get one’s relatives out of poverty’ and this overshadows the risks of migration. To get through the physical challenges involved in illegal migration (“I know the forests of Morocco. We know how to bypass the border guards and even how to dupe them...”), an illegal migrant is required to conceal their body, but also their identity and history. This makes the process clandestine, both internally and in reality. Out of fear of revealing who one really is, this internalized clandestinity can bring the migrant to hide all or part of their life, temporarily or permanently.

2. The myth of Eldorado: its necessity and its socio-cultural context

The phenomenon of illegal migration to the Canary Islands began in the 2000s and was extensively covered by the media. The route is known, in Senegal, as “Barça or Barzagh” which can be translated as “Barcelona or beyond”. Senegalese migration along this route has a long history: far-ranging traditional fishermen were accustomed to sailing as far as the rich waters of Mauritania, Western Sahara and, sometimes, even ventured to the Canary Islands, where some would remain. In modern times, the practice has gained momentum and experienced diversification, even if it remains poorly quantified and overestimated in comparison with South-South migration flows.

The myths around travel and migration have strong religious references, particularly in Islam – the religion shared by the Sahelian countries, and which informs and structures most of the cultural conduct of the region’s people. Islam states that the prophet Mohammed, faced with enemies and adversity, left Mecca for the town of Yathrib (which became Medina). This founding moment, marked by the displacement of the first Muslims, is called the Hegira (hijra), Arabic for “emigration”. In the Senegal River Valley, inhabited by the Peul/Tukulor/Fulani (a pastoralist ethnic group found in all Sahelian countries), migration is seen as the route to success. According to legend, the great 19th century Marabout of the Toucouleur, El Hadj Omar Tall, leaving for the former French Sudan to Islamise its people and fight the colonial power, proclaimed, “Foutankobé, péréndarjon”, meaning “O people of the Fouta, migrate to succeed!” The citizens of this northern region of Senegal – the Toucouleurs – who also constitute a significant indigenous population in southern Mauritania, are known to have been a precursor for later Senegalese emigration, first towards African countries and then to Europe.

3. Transnational factors of illegal migration to Europe

A complexity of push and pull factors exist to explain migration which challenges, or does not fit into, an established regulatory framework. Most of the work done on this issue shows that the difficulty of obtaining a visa is the main reason why young people opt for illegal channels. It is a forced choice. Legal emigration assumes one has sufficient material and financial resources to apply for a visa with the relevant embassies. It may also assume connections to religious or artistic networks which are powerful ramps for emigration used by migrants. The restrictive migration policies of European states rarely allow the legal arrival of African workers into the Schengen area, thus leaving little choice in entry methods. The political dimension of migration is most significant here: one could see illegal immigration as a component of a ‘culture of opposition’ and a refusal of the established order by which young people feel excluded. It would, thus, appear to be a phenomenon of adaptation for large sections of the working class – young people with few or no qualifications – excluded de facto by a dominant system.

The globalization of trade as well as the construction of the European Union and trade liberalization have produced a frantic search for competitiveness and productivity. This has created a need for cheap labour, particularly in sectors that require high-value but lowskilled manual labourers such as the agricultural sector. Despite these structural factors (which attract migrants to jobs that nationals do not want to occupy), and despite the aging of the population in Europe, there continues to be a hardening towards immigration and of reception conditions.

4. The overlap and independence of migratory routes and zones of violent extremists

The Saharan-Sahelian region has always been a mysterious place, intensively traversed by state and non-state actors, merchants and adventurers. The double border of land and sea, and the peripheral location of some of the great cities of the Sahel, also favour the entry and exit of all kinds of material and non-material goods. From this point of view, the routes taken by illegal migration are an update of the SaharanSahelian trans-border routes traced long ago.

However, this overlapping of migration routes and cross-border areas where violent extremism develops should not overshadow the important fact that migrants (and civil society actors in the countries of departure) consider, and experience, illegal migration as a quest for security and wellbeing. The likelihood, then, of sub-Saharan migrants falling into jihadist networks appears weak, particularly because of the significance of the life goals structuring their migration goal. As mentioned earlier in this report, the decision to migrate unfolds in a social setting where mythic, cultural and economic reasons are all at work. These appear to be the meta-social guarantors which inform the migratory paths of these young people and which are capable of reducing, or preventing, the risk of ideological instability of the jihadist type. The comments below, from an Ivorian migrant living in Nouakchott, seem to describe emblematically the mythical-political-security context in which the migratory reality unfolds:

“... Frankly, it is ignoring reality to think that these young people will fall into terrorism. What motivates me – and I can say that it applies to all the migrants with whom I have been through a lot – is a successful life, earning a living. We do not take all these crazy paths, the forest, the bush, the ocean, the desert, endure hunger and thirst, fall ill and recover with no medical treatment ... in order to place a bomb to kill innocents. If you spend all your time in the forest, you suffer everything, you play cat and mouse with the police and customs, so if you get the chance to get to Europe, you will do anything to find work ... We are deaf to the arguments of terrorists who do not believe in the pleasures of this world. I’m tired of moving, I have been in the north of Mali, in Kidal, in Algeria and in Morocco which plays a lot with security to please Europe.... And now I have come back here to Nouakchott, where I have decided to earn my living.”

Indeed, these migrants have a clear awareness of their place in the geo-strategic and political issues beyond them. They are also witnesses of the political use being made of their illegal status by some countries of the south and aware that the north uses them as scarecrows to counter the threat of terrorism. Nevertheless, the symbolic moral arguments permeating their remarks (“fear of failure”, “succeed like others”, “shaming the family”, “social security” etc.) reflect an unwavering commitment to their initial reasons for departure.

5. Perceptions of respondents on migration, insecurity and violent extremism

A Nigerian national based in Nouakchott notes the danger facing the Niger: “... if the country explodes, it will be worse than other countries because of the Hausa, the Kamdi and Tubu”. According to him, radicalization is often related to the fact “that we often wrongly accuse some groups of people of being terrorists, and they are tortured to death. You see a child who sees his mother or father tortured and even killed, that’s why he becomes jihadist”.

As for insecurity and the risk of being recruited by jihadist networks, the interviewee is clear:

“No, why? We left home to escape insecurity, unemployment, to earn an honest living. What I also want to add is that, here in Mauritania, there are many important Tuaregs. If Mauritania supports a country or the West, these Tuaregs can do some damage. There are a lot of dormant terrorists here, and Mauritania knows it. That is why the country refuses to take tough positions against terrorists and does not dare to openly support the West.”

This comment by the migrant from Niger coincides with the remark made by the migrant from the Ivory Coast quoted above: “... We are deaf to the arguments of terrorists who do not believe in the pleasures of this world”. It is also closer to the position of a historic Mauritanian leader who fought against slavery, a leader in the human rights movement in Mauritania. For this actor in Mauritanian civil society, migrants are in search of safety:

“Violent extremism and jihadism, actual or potential, both search for vulnerable locals, people who are discriminated against, from poor and marginalized communities, from the Sebha neighbourhoods, for example. The Islamist arguments may seem open and egalitarian to the youth of these neighborhoods, entirely populated by black Africans. Extremism dangles equality before their eyes. It conjures up all the values of Islam. So, there is, in Mauritania, a real danger of confrontation between communities. The failure of citizenship, then, is the legitimate son of terrorism in this country.”

As this argument suggests, as a result of internal factors specific to their country, local citizens are more vulnerable than migrants to the calls of violent extremism. From this perspective, it could be inferred that the illegal migration of young sub-Saharans is an attempt to leave behind the resentment of a state unable to meet the needs of its citizens. It is at this level of analysis, this report suggests, that considering the mobility of young people as a ‘front’ or ‘culture of opposition’ takes its full meaning. Moreover, one could even read the migration of young people across borders as the expression of a form of transnationalism from below, which reveals the limits of the political institutions in their own countries to build and maintain a society for citizens which avoids disillusionment with, and detachment from, their country.

Conclusion: from the myth of Eldorado to the myth of security

The existence of a relationship between myth and the migration phenomenon seems to have been established. This report has shown that the myth of ‘over there’ – which is as much an idealized way out of crisis as it is a preferred means of social promotion – helps produce the migratory phenomenon. It has also shown that what, is generally thought of as a risky, insecure undertaking is, to the migrants themselves, a necessary and sure path to safety and wellbeing. The report has also shown how this entrenched belief grows in difficult and tormented contexts within broken economies in de-territorialized spaces. Other studies have shown that the “phenomena of mythical acceleration” occur when institutions are overwhelmed, when they are no longer able to provide a credible alternative. This inability has, for most of the state institutions in the Sahel region, a political and economic dimension insofar as they have not been able to offer ‘social security’ to the thousands of young people crossing ocean and desert, nor offer them prospects of a future that could be built locally.

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