This article is the English version of : Alain Antil, Christophe Bertossi, Victor Magnani and Matthieu Tardis, « Migrations : logiques africaines », published in Politique étrangère, Vol. 81, Issue 1, 2016.
Since the 1990s, global migrations have become a central topic in international relations, both because of their importance in relationships between states (between Northern and Southern countries, and between departure, transit, and destination countries) and because of their new importance in global governance agendas. In 2015, 244 million people lived somewhere other than their country of nationality—a threefold increase in migrants compared to forty years ago. This increase has outstripped world population growth, even if it forms only a very small proportion of that population (around 3%, compared to 5% a century ago).
Such mobility has become a central issue in public and electoral debates in the North. Over the course of these debates, the image of migrants, and of immigration, has been profoundly distorted. The colonial histories of many of these European states mean that African migrations are particularly important to them. This is particularly true in France, where the figure of the immigrant worker is associated, in the public imagination, with Algerian or Malian workers, and migration with influxes from South to North. Africa is consequently seen as a vast and troublesome store of migrants, in the face of which Europeans need new development and border control policies.
If we reverse this perspective and consider migrations from Africa rather than to Europe, matters appear in a new and far more differentiated light. We come to understand that human movements on the continent are far more complex, both spatially and temporally, than a mere ascent toward Europe. Strikingly, we understand that Africa’s position in international migration is relatively modest, especially if we distinguish between different types of migration flow. On a global scale, Africa represents a stronger share of forced migration than of so-called “economic” migration.
The argument common to the articles in this special report is that the African migratory phenomenon is complex, and that this complexity fits poorly with the categories European migration policies attempt to frame it in. Rather than reducing the phenomenon to a flow northward arising from demographic or economic asymmetries, we need a better understanding of the historical, cultural, and political aspects of modern migrations in Africa, one which situates African migrations more accurately within the global migration system.
Modern migrations occur within diverse, long-established mobilities
Africa was sparsely populated for a very long time. Over the centuries, it has witnessed human movements and mobilities on a grand scale, from the Bantu expansion to the modern-day labor migrations that form part of continental and global circulations—not to mention the (sometimes vast) displacements caused by conflict, slavery, and forced labor.
Large-scale displacements—Bantu migrations in central and southern Africa, Arab ones in North Africa, and Nilotic ones in the east—lead in turn to processes of cultural syncretism, or else to new local mobilities as people try to escape military, political, cultural, or religious domination by the newcomers, whether they are settlers or invaders. For instance, some Berber populations in North Africa escaped the process of Arabization of the plains population. Similarly, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, King Moshoeshoe allowed the Basotho to maintain their independence in the face of Zulu aggression by gathering them in the mountainous territory of modern-day Lesotho. At the southern end of the continent, the Great Trek (1835-40) meant Boer populations could escape English domination for a time. From the fourteenth century, Dogon populations in West Africa, in the center of present-day Mali, escaped Mandé domination and, later, Islamization by taking refuge in the strongholds of the Bandiagara Escarpment and the Dogon Plateau. […]
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