Saharan migration: the truth a far cry from popular myths
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Migration from sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa has increased as never before over the past 15 years or so. What routes are the migrants following and how are they settling in North Africa? What social and spatial changes are these new settlement patterns generating? What effects are today’s increasingly restrictive migration policies having on migration patterns? Anthropologists, geographers and sociologists in a project coordinated by a CNRS researcher and a researcher from the IRD/University of Provence joint Population-Environment Development Laboratory have been assessing the situation. And their initial findings are far less alarming than popular report suggests.
The most striking change in migration patterns in Africa is not so much an increase in volume as a wider range of different flows. Contrary to popular wisdom, only a minority of African migrants push on into Europe. Most settle lastingly in the Arab countries; migration in Africa is thus mainly
cross-border migration within the continent. Displacement in the Sahel-Sahara region is closely linked to the region’s recent history. Independence in the 1950s and 60s, the droughts of the 1970s, the armed conflicts of the 70s and 80s and the development gap between the countries north and south of the Sahara have all encouraged people from sub-Saharan countries to head for regions where there are opportunities for work.
The Maghreb Sahara has thus seen considerable urban expansion. In the space of thirty years, 53 new towns have sprung up compared to only 8 in the Sahelian Sahara. In this landlocked part of the Maghreb, the arrival of newcomers is seen as a way of revitalising local areas. Algeria, for example, controls the circulation of migrants but integrates them in the development of its southern towns, where there is a chronic labour shortage.
Secondly, it is not the most destitute who migrate, because the journey is expensive. And economic reasons are not the only ones for leaving home. Psychological reasons such as the desire to break free from family obligations are also widespread. Migrants’ profiles vary widely and the lability of their professional and legal status is a determining feature of this form of migration. The reality is far from the accepted cliché of the young, illiterate migrant from a rural area. On the contrary, many migrants have university degrees or professional qualifications and have already worked in the West African mega-cities where they grew up.
Lastly, the research shows that under pressure from Europe, the toughening of controls over migration in the Maghreb countries affects not only migrants who are trying to reach Europe but also the majority who settle in the Maghreb. Today there is a serious risk that the Saharan towns, which were once staging points on the great migration trails, will become dead ends.