If Europe is a Fortress, then its Walls are Full of Cracks: the Case of Sub-Saharan Migrants in Morocco

The Stopover: the Best Place to Observe and Understand so-called ‘Transit’ 
Transnational Migrations

We see them daily in the news. Masses of black bodies, cramped together on unseaworthy boats, bodies in rags lying, helpless, exhausted, on the white sand. No face. No name. Such images reproduce, time and again, an imaginary of the invasion of Europe by its radical ‘Other’; an imaginary that, in turn, justifies exceptional measures – the militarized and arbitrary government of migration. Here too, images are, identical, interchangeable: military ships, circling radars, men in uniforms and gloves intercepting desperate bodies. We see these images so often. There is nothing left to see or think; or do: both this ‘flow’ of people and the violent reaction of the state to the crossing of its borders seem unstoppable. Flip the page, zap. And yet it is precisely this ‘flow’ of people that I have sought to present differently: I’ll try to show that far from being a uni-directional, violent, and massive ‘invasion,’ the transnational migration of Sub-Saharan Africans in the Maghreb has evolved according to complex patterns, often over several years, and is shaped by multiple forms of agency and collaboration enacted by migrants.

Since the 1990s, with the instigation of the visa regime across the Schengen area and its resultant restrictive practices, transnational migration carried out in stages has become a regular experience for African migrants; opening or reopening[1] new migratory routes from Sub-Saharan Africa, through the Maghreb, to Europe. While the need for immigrant labour in many sectors remains high in Europe, these increasingly controlling migratory policies are paradoxical and have to some extent encouraged a number of Africans to embark on the route to what they call ‘the adventure’, and what the media and politicians call ‘illegal immigration’ or ‘staged migration’. While this is not the only determining factor, a great many of these Sub-Saharan migrants would have flown directly to Europe if they had been able to do so. However, the EU is neither a fortress nor a sieve. The numbers of people, male and female, who manage either legally or illegally, to cross the frontiers and the numbers of those who remain stuck en route, in countries where they had not planned to settle, gives us some idea of the complexity of migration where people’s thought worlds, their ambitions surrounding it must absolutely be taken into account.

However, while this migratory movement begins in a variety of ways, in terms of place, reason and situation, once these people have embarked on their personal migratory project, they reorganise themselves collectively during the stopovers which punctuate their journey. In order to connect with these spaces, the migrants must collectively[2] make up for the absence of territory by channelling their individual desire for mobility. So, having crossed Africa from south to north, thousands of Sub-Saharan transmigrants enter Maghreb every year collectively relocating and setting up stopovers. Since their establishment in the 1990s, these stopovers have continued to serve as migratory staging posts for newcomers and a social history has gradually built up along the migratory trajectories. Founded upon the experiences of the first transmigrants, who organised themselves into collectives, this knowledge has been passed on and shared throughout the migratory network and relies on migrants’ strong social skills and the ability to learn new ones.

This network has made transnational migration possible: it is the relational structure which allows the migratory project and the trajectories deriving from it to be steered, weaving de-territorialised relationships on the basis of a shared thought world. Based on their individual experiences, migrants passing from one regulated area to another signpost the way for those who follow. But this suggests that the signs marking out these routes are recognisable to all, in other words a collective thought world brings all these individuals together, allowing players to interpret the codes they have come to understand. Through the constant repetition of migratory journeys, routes are also ‘traced’ in social terms: like the fairytale character Hop O’ My Thumb, they leave little markers behind as guides for others to see. Distributing information in this manner enables migrants to acquire one dimension of nomadic know-how: namely, how to set up a means of communication through the marking out of routes or the drawing up of new ones so that they can be found again and can help new migrants to navigate their way. These ‘venturers’ [3] are modern nomads who I call transmigrants.

Transit, a Concept Produced by European Migration Policies

In order to keep this information flowing, staging posts are needed in which these ‘venturers’ can get their bearings and find all the information, connections and resources (economic, social and symbolic) needed for survival and to prepare them for the next stage of their journey. In the case of Sub-Saharan Africans in Morocco who want to go to Europe but feel ‘stuck’, priority in sociological terms could be given to the original migratory projects or at least to those acknowledged by individuals. There might also be a temptation to reduce this type of migration to simple ‘transit’ and to talk of Morocco as a ‘transit country’, of this movement as a ‘transit migration’ and of these people as ‘transit migrants’. But here we should like to distance ourselves from these terminologies, which, in terms of our sociological understanding, is both unsatisfactory but also sufficiently ambiguous politically to mislead the researcher.

The term ‘transit’ is really not adequate for the sociology of migration since it has a rather restrictive definition from the space-time point of view. From our perspective, ‘transit’ is first and foremost the time you spend wandering about. For example, in the terminal building at an international airport where, waiting for a flight, you stroll around disorientated by the time difference, gaping through the windows of ‘tax-free’ shops. This term also assumes subjective realities that vary depending on whether you are a migrant, a journalist, a politician, a lawyer, or even according to the country in which you find yourself. This restrictive understanding of transit matches the place it occupies today within our societies, whether as a subject for discussion by ‘experts’ or as an issue for public debate.[4] For example, in Europe, curiously the term ‘transit country’ is commonly used to describe those countries on the fringes of the EU, accentuating still further the presumption that these countries have an outsider status and the idea that a ‘natural’ border separates the EU from the rest of the world. However, it should be remembered that countries such as Spain and Italy were considered transit countries in the 1990s before becoming important sites for immigration. Furthermore, countries formerly known as ‘transit’ countries, such as Cyprus or Malta, have changed status simply because they joined the union, becoming ‘countries of first entry into the EU’; even though we are well aware that the majority of migrants do not wish to settle there and are trying to get into the Schengen area!

It is partly for this reason that we prefer the notion of stopover as it better conveys the complexity of migratory routes and does not diminish the waiting process to a ‘non-place’, where little interaction occurs before the migrant moves on. Rather the stopover is a much longer, more complex period during which social interactions and immersion have the capacity to transform, or at least to influence, both migrants and observers. Stopovers bring people together who do not know one another; who have developed their migratory project individually and independently within their own social environment, but who must now negotiate and organise themselves collectively. They bring together all the players in the process who can be distinguished from one another by their origins and their ambitions: staged transnational migration then becomes a vehicle for value where cohesion is something which moving players have to achieve; because just as life and biographical trajectories are made up of setbacks, bumps, frustrations and adjustments, migratory trajectories are not smooth and often run into obstacles. In the case that concerns us here these trajectories are governed by transnational networks, which are affected by countries’ border control policies particularly those in Europe. Migrants must therefore reorganise themselves, working out strategies during their stay at the stopovers to combat dissuasive policies thereby revealing the strength of their social networks. During their stopovers, Sub-Saharan migrants, who are almost nomadic and set apart from the societies they move through, must of necessity acquire know-how and social skills during their process of de-territorialisation and re-territorialisation, of engagement in and disengagement from new social relationships. This encourages a certain distancing from so-called ‘ethnic’ belonging, which is all too often seen by researchers as irrevocable and insurmountable.

Clandestinity as a Common Destiny: the Violent Confrontation of Migrant and State

First, we can only begin by insisting that the migratory movements with which we are confronted globally today must be understood in light of the astounding erosion of the political limits of democracy, a limit which is questioned by the presence of the foreign migrant. On a planetary level, the desire for individual emancipation and the rationalities that underlie them, as well as the strategies that are put into place to realize them, underline the degree to which the social order instituted by the nation-states is being reworked. Profoundly modified by dynamics, defined by increasing individualization of social life and the construction of new aggregative forms of collective life, in which collective and individual rationalities crisscross in increasingly complex places, often outside of national institutions and frameworks of identity-production. For the transnational migration of sub-Saharan Africans, one must bear in mind that we are in the presence of opposing rationalities, in a veritable face-off: the logics of the state are in direct opposition to the logics of individual emancipation. In the face of rationalities of security and sovereignty imposed ‘from above’ by the state, individuals are motivated to act outside the dictated rules, rules that they perceive as imposed upon them. In a move against the state's rule of law, the collectives of transmigrants seize the right to use the spaces left vacant by state control, at least for the length of time they need to reorganize and start all over again. These transmigrants partially escape the alienation of the state by learning to cross borders, all borders: those set by the sovereign state as well as those determined by social relations. Irreducible to the rationality of locality and normalcy, the transmigrants known as ‘clandestines’ appear threatening in the eyes of the nation-state, whose power is founded on territoriality, centralism and sedentarity.

Second, one must remember that at the level of state policy the individual dimension of migration is usually ignored. The desires, ambitions, projects and strategies of the migrants appear unimportant, both in immigration policies (those concerning recruitment and entry) and in the restrictive policies that seek to halt or regulate migration. We are often inclined to conceive of migration as a strictly collective phenomenon. Everyday language is full of expressions referring to ‘flows,’ ‘waves,’ ‘invasions,’ ‘cohorts,’ ‘assaults.’ However, like so many other human phenomena, migration is initially viewed as an individual project. Subsequently, it is the outcome of a continuous interaction between individual decisions, personal ambitions; the advent of the migration project on the one hand, and the social constraints that weigh on it and the environment in which it takes place on the other. A human being is never simply a pawn on a playing board over which he or she has no control; a human being is never merely a victim. She is also a strategist for both herself and her loved ones, constantly trying to find the next step that will result in an improvement of her condition. She tirelessly negotiates her position according to rationalities of action that cannot be strictly understood by the sole fact of allegiance to instituted social orders, or to other orders in the course of constitution: they are neither those of the nation-state's local hierarchies alone, nor only those of territorial recomposition and the economic globalization of capitalism.

This approach brings to the fore an increasingly frequent characteristic of migration on a planetary level, namely clandestinity as a common purpose. The systematic policies for the repression of so-called ‘irregular’ migration not only do nothing to address the economic, political and social needs expressed by these actors in movement, sometimes even denying their fundamental rights, they are ineffective since transmigrants know how to use borders in order to organize crossing networks, or to institute underground commercial activities. In the face of repressive policies, there is the knowledge of the transmigrants and their capacity to adapt to the control devices by reorganizing their patterns of circulation, their ‘border-crossing know-how.’ These repressive policies often contribute only to push the border crossings back, distancing them ever further by the externalization of controls. ‘Crossing the border’ becomes an increasingly perilous exercise that unfolds ever further from European frontiers, augmenting the toll of victims: the dead and wounded number in the thousands. The EU is imposing a cordon sanitaire on Africa. The transmigrants are thus the victims of policies imposed ‘from above,’ by technocrats who do not understand them and who treat them as undesirables. They are the victims of the fences and their ever-increasing height and of the technologies and human forces that are mobilized in their path. In short, they are the victims of a war waged against them.

As such, authorities, rather than trying to implement the central government’s politics of repression, set out to control the movement of migrants in a particular way: illegally they are given the opportunity to take on casual work. In the face of such a precarious legal and social condition that allows the agricultural industry to better exploit them, with little cost to the state, but which is also presented as an opportunity for illegalized migrants. The borders of the EU are thus not only undermined by the crossing of migrants but by other actors whose interests conflict with those of the state. The result of these contradictions is the inclusion of migrants through clandestinization, rather then complete closure to their mobility

Opening Cracks in the Euro-African Migration Regime

Different forms of transnational political activism have widened the cracks in the Euro-African migration regime. This is because in addition to the globalization of the economy and that of migration, another major transformation of international relations counterbalances the power of the state to control migration, the increasing number and power of judicial regimes relating to human rights and the ongoing struggle of activists who strive to impose them on reluctant states.[5] If the shifting borders of the EU slither through the Maghreb, stripping many migrants of the right to have rights, their very movement opens up the possibility to actively resist and contest them, often using the democratic values proclaimed by the EU. The migrants discussed here, who I call transmigrants, play a central role in this transnational mobilization for, since the destruction of informal camps and the mass deportations of 2005 they have increasingly organized themselves politically, a relatively easy step because they were already well organized socially. They have formed militant associations such as the Council of Sub-Saharan Migrants in Morocco, the largest and most militant, and the Association of Congolese Refugees in Morocco (ARCOM) or the Refugees’ Collective.[6] Maintaining close ties beyond borders, through, e.g. electronic correspondence, Sub-Saharan transmigrants and European activists have formed a transnational network of resistance.[7] Within these networks, structured around a common political objective, information and services are exchanged to promote the respect of human rights and asylum law, and a demand for the right to freedom of movement. This highlights another sociopolitical reconfiguration at work within globalization: against, across, and beyond national and territorialized citizenship, new forms of belonging and political action emerge around the values of human rights and in the experience of the common struggle to obtain them.

I have tried here to demonstrate the falsity of the ‘transit migration’ and the ‘myth of the invasion’. Far from being a direct and violent movement as suggested by the image of ‘invasion,’ the transmigration of Sub-Saharan Africans in the Maghreb has evolved along complex lines over long periods of time, finding temporary refuge at moments within this process. Along the way they have created new forms of deterritorialized social organization from which emerge new cosmopolitan associations. However militarized they may be, no migration policy can stop them in their ‘adventure’. Their mobility is not governable by a single institution, but is shaped by a multiple and conflicting politics of migration. We need to substitute a more complex configuration for the image of complete closure implied in the term ‘fortress Europe’. If the EU is a fortress, then its walls are full of cracks, mobile and disseminated, selective and ambivalent; its unity undermined by multiple, contradictory actors. Shifting our emphasis from migration towards other forms of mobility (the movement of human beings but also of capital and goods alongside the repression of migration and that of human rights activists) we see at work multiple mobility regimes forming different yet overlapping and intersecting ‘zones’ which, having both material and symbolic dimensions, do not necessarily correspond to the boundaries of nation states nor are they subject to jurisdiction. And, it is precisely these kind of messy relations we need to untangle if we wish to understand the actors and processes that determine who can move and how.

Additional References

Alioua, M. (2009) ‘Le passage au politique des transmigrants subsahariens au Maroc.’ In A. Benssaâd (éd.) Le Maghreb à l’épreuve des migrations subsahariennes, Karthala : 279-303.

Bensaâd A. (éd.) (2009) Immigration sur émigration, le Maghreb à l’épreuve des migrations subsahariennes, Karthala : 195-214.

Clochard, O. (éd) (2009) et réseau MIGREUROP, Atlas des migrants en Europe. Géographie critique des politiques migratoires. Armand Colin.

GADEM, La chasse aux migrants aux frontières Sud de l’UE: conséquence des politiques migratoires européennes. L’exemple des refoulements de décembre 2006 au Maroc. [Available to download at : http://www.migreurop.org/IMG/pdf/RAPPORT_GADEM_20_06_2007.pdf].

Glick Shiller, N., L. Bash; C. Szanton Blanc, (1995) ‘From immigrant to transmigrant: Theorizing transnational migration’, Anthropological Quarterly, 68: 54.

MIGREUROP, Guerre aux migrants. Le livre noir de Ceuta et Melilla, 2006. [Available to download at : http://www.migreurop.org/IMG/pdf/livrenoir-ceuta.pdf].

Rodier, C. (2006) Analyse de la dimension externe des politiques d'asile et d'immigration de l'ue. Synthèse et recommandations pour le Parlement européen, Direction générale pour les politiques externes de l'Union, Bruxelles, 26p.

Tarrius, A., (1989) Anthropologie du mouvement. Paradigme éd.


[1] Bredeloup, S., and O. Pliez. (ed.) (2005) Migrations entre les deux rives du Sahara, Volume 4, n°36.  Autrepart, Armand Colin et IRD-éditions.

[2] Alioua, M. (2005) ‘La migration transnationale des Africains subsahariens au Maghreb. L’exemple de l’étape marocaine.’ In Marges et mondialisation : Les migrations transsahariennes, n°185, Maghreb-Machrek.

[3] The ‘adventure’ is the way ‘venturers’ like to describe their migration. The fact that they describe themselves in this way reinforces the collective nature of such migration and also makes it possible to value it.

[4] Morice, A. (2009) ‘Conceptualisation des migrations et marchandages internationaux.’ In A. Bensaâd (éd.) Immigration sur émigration, le Maghreb à l’épreuve des migrations subsahariennes. Karthala : p.195-214.

[5] Sassen S. (2007) A Sociology of Globalization, Contemporary Societies Series. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

[6] Alioua, M. (2005) ‘La migration transnationale des Africains subsahariens au Maghreb. L’exemple de l’étape marocaine.’ In Marges et mondialisation : Les migrations transsahariennes, n°185, Maghreb-Machrek.

[7] Urry J. (2000) Sociology Beyond Societies: Mobilities for the Twenty First Century, International Library of Sociology Series. London: Routledge.