Intra-African migration, as seen here in Ethiopia, has always existed and shaped the continent.

© Grant Rooney - Alamy banque d'images

African migration : beyond borders


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Migration plays a disproportionate role in European policy debates, particularly in regard to what it represents in demographic terms. Out of the 8.4 million migrants in West Africa, less than 10% of them travel to Europe.

Local migration, whether between cities and rural areas, intra-regional or between states, has always existed on the African continent: it has long shaped its landscapes and cities, and transformed its societies.  
How and why have people migrated within and across Africa, in the past and present? While health is one of the motivations for migration, it can also suffer as a result. What other obstacles do migrants face? What does migration bring to receiving countries, on the African continent and elsewhere?
Based on their studies, IRD researchers and their partners provide unprecedented, unbiased insights into African migration.



Rock painting in the Acacus mountains in Libya. The figures depicted attest to climate change in this desert-like region and to human presence over time.

© IRD – Christian Leduc

In the past: Migrating, transforming, exchanging

Millions of years ago, several human lineages left Africa to spread out to other continents. Prehistorians describe several movements out of Africa at various periods. Regarded as the birthplace of modern humans, the African continent has seen its societies and landscapes changed over time through waves of migration. Examples of mobility, at different spatial and temporal scales, are manifold and provide insights into the continent's transformations. 


Map of African language families. Bantu languages extend from Cameroon to South Africa.

© Library of Congress Geography and Map Division - Wikipedia

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By studying the languages of Central and Southern Africa, researchers have pointed to a major migration. Over 2,000 years ago, people in Central Africa started to move eastward and southward. This significant migration, at the origin of present-day languages spoken in the region, is referred to as the "Bantu expansion"Series of migrations of Proto-Bantu speakers, at the origin of the Bantu language group which currently includes nearly 400 languages spoken in some twenty Southern African countries and would last until the 18th century. How was it structured? 



Recreation of an ancient Iron Age village in Cameroon around 200 BC.

© Éric Lebrun

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"These migrations were part of a particular social dynamic," explains Geoffroy de Saulieu, archaeologist at the UMR Paloc. "In these lineage organisationsBased on all the descendants of a common ancestor, power was monopolised by the elders. In particular, they controlled the wealth needed to get married. Very often, suitors have to pay their future in-laws a high sum: this was known as the "bride price,” which Africans now call the "dowry". The last children of these lineages did not have the resources they need to evolve socially: they had to either accept that they would not start a family, or revolt and leave their family. In the stories passed down orally in African societies, it is understood that the founders of new lineages are the youngest children who left their families. At times, they even went so far as to capture their neighbours' wives and impose the creation of a new lineage, just like the first Romans, who, according to legend, went to kidnap the Sabine women to found Rome."


Social and geographic transformation

These groups, who were originally from what is present-day Cameroon, transformed landscapes as they passed through them. Their way of life was primarily agricultural and their preference for certain fruit trees, in particular oil palms, gradually changed the soil structure and forest landscapes.

Once established, the lineages gathered together in villages and settled there. Due to their social and demographic vitality, some villages became cities, then capitals, like Mbanza-Kongo, capital of the Kingdom of Congo. Urban life developed and the lineages joined together to extend their domination, create new kingdoms and even forms of empires at times. 


© Headley & Johnson 1889, p. 347

Nyanga Maniema, a pre-colonial Luba village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the late 19th century.

Were women absent from such mobility? They moved, from lineage to lineage. "In the 19th century, 30% of the women in western Cameroon were of a different ethnicity than that of their family," adds Geoffroy de Saulieu. "That's an especially high proportion! We have this image of an ancient Africa that was unmoving, unchanging, but these movements have probably taken place since early Prehistory, over 10,000 years ago, even if they did not leave behind any archaeological evidence."


Power over humans

Another example of mobility can be found further north, in what is present-day Mali, where the movement of certain population groups is also an age-old tradition. Every year, the Tuaregs – groups of nomadic herders – leave the area they live in to travel to pastures for the rainy season, from July to September. They lead their herds of goats, sheep and cattle over distances of 100 to 200 kilometres to the north, to pastures that are rich and abundant, but only viable during this period of the year.  
In these regions, borders as such did not exist: power was not exercised over spaces, but over humans. As such, until the colonial conquest started in the late 19th century, subordinate social groups paid a levy – or tribute –  to families with political authority,  chiefdoms. To free themselves from this control, they had to either manage to reverse the power relationship or leave in an attempt to secure their autonomy elsewhere. "The notion of 'boundaries' existed," asserts Charles Grémont, historian at the UMR LPED. "But it was connected to political recognition from neighbouring communities. The resulting territories were flexible and evolved  more or less quickly over time. The herding areas, where these groups lived in the dry season, also changed for political and economic reasons."



Tuaregs on the banks of the Niger river, in the Bamba area.

© Dessin de J.-M. Bernatz au cours du voyage de Heinrich Barth - 1854.

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For example, the centrality of power of the Iwellemmedan Tuaregs evolved from the 17th to 19th centuries, from the Timbuktu area to the Menaka region, located over 500 km to the east. More abundant pasture land as a result of more favourable climate conditions attracted people to this region. Conflicts between chiefdoms also pushed shepherds to migrate. "Saharan cities, which are trade and intellectual centres, are a similar case. These cities may be abandoned for climate reasons, such as a water body drying up, or disagreements and conflicts between the clans who live there," says the historian.


Artificial borders ?

In the late 19th century, French colonisers settled in present-day Mali in a conquest from west to east and north to south. The city of Timbuktu was captured in 1894, followed by Gao in 1899. The French relied on the chiefdoms – who sought to defend their interests – to help establish the new boundaries of their power. The pre-existing political divisions were therefore continued, but would henceforth be established by conventions and precisely recorded on maps. These borders produced by the colonial administration were therefore not as artificial as has commonly been believed since then. Indeed, they are based on pre-existing distinctions, and often competition, between different social groups.  




© Hourst (Lieutenant de vaisseau), Sur le Niger et au pays des Touaregs. La mission Hourst, Paris, Plon, 1898.

Tuaregs meeting Lieutenant Hourst's exploration mission, between Bamba and Gao in 1896.


While the segments of the border were not established at random, bringing them all together to form a single "enclosure", in the words of the Tuaregs, which would become the border of independent Mali, was a colonial creation. Furthermore, mobility within colonial subdivisions was greatly disrupted. It was not entirely prohibited, but it was controlled. When herders travelled without a pass to move herds to grazing areas, they found themselves in illegal situations and could be fined.

Colonial rule therefore transformed the way power was structured, as it was no longer exercised over people, but over a territory, first and foremost. This rationale of a state who opposed mobility essential to nomadic herders led to numerous conflicts with the people. "Even though colonial borders were based on pre-existing local divisions, they imposed an identical legislation on people who did not necessarily have a shared history or culture and did not take into account their specific circumstances," explains Charles Grémont.

Escaped former slaves

Along with establishing borders, the colonial administration abolished slavery in most of French West Africa in 1905. This practice was still common in the region in the 19th century, when the economy was based primarily on the labour of enslaved persons. Once they were freed, some of these individuals managed to leave their villages in Mali to create new communities, in particular in Senegal: they cleared the land around the railway being built or took part in groundnut growing, which was booming at the time. This latter example highlights the role of women in these movements. "Women have often been overlooked since migration has long been associated with men," says Marie Rodet, historian at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). "But they were highly active during this period so as to escape their restrictive situations. One notable example is that they used colonial courts to free themselves from their masters."



© Collection Général Fortier.

1910 postcard showing an indigenous court in Sudan.

Women who lived in slavery therefore left their homes and were not afraid to appeal to the colonial  justice system to seek divorce from their husbands, who were often their former masters. Up to the 1920s, the administration granted women the nullity of marriage and allowed such separations. But in the years that followed, the courts were not as benevolent : the departure of women challenged the social order – and therefore colonial order. Leaving the marital home became a crime and marriages were no longer annulled. Even so, women
did not hesitate to run away from their "husbands" and some were imprisoned as a result.


Women, as seen here in the village of Bouillagui in Mali, help maintain social ties and therefore contribute to the integration of migrants and the transformation of societies.

© John Kalapo

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When they do manage to leave, women continue to play a crucial role in maintaining social ties between the receiving and home regions. They move between the different areas, maintaining social ties by travelling to attend ceremonies, for example. In Senegal and Mali, these strong relationships shaped by waves of migration ensure an intergenerational connection between the two countries. "Waves of migration have a cumulative aspect: families settle in a region, then others join them. Marriages between sending and host communities proliferate. The involvement of women, their mobility, therefore contributes to the integration of these communities in their receiving country and to the overall transformation of these societies," concludes the researcher.  

A far cry from the image of an Africa that is unchanging, these examples illustrate how mobility has led to societal and geographic transformations for thousands of years. These movements of people continued and have grown throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.



Border control checkpoint between South Africa and Mozambique

© Andrew Ashton - Wikipedia

Increasingly restrictive migration policies

From the end of World War II to the 1970s, European countries who were experiencing an economic boom massively recruited their workforce abroad, in certain African countries in particular. But starting with the first oil crisis in 1973 and the disastrous consequences it had on their economies, states introduced restrictions on the entry of non-European foreigners and wanted them to return to their home countries. These limits on immigration were put in place gradually: up to the mid-1980s many African migrants could legally enter some European countries, but this became increasingly difficult from the 1990s. For example, Senegalese nationals could enter France without a visa until 1986 and Italy until 1990, which would no longer be possible thereafter. This trend towards restrictions was also a result of the creation of the Schengen area in 1995, which allowed for free movement within the European Union: the opening of borders between European countries was correlated with increased control of external borders. 


© IRD - Jacques Vaugelade

A "successful" migrant returning to the Mossi country in 1974 with a bicycle, a new bag etc.

Externalising borders

This shift in European migration policy came about amid a global context of securisation of migration. As Delphine Perrin, legal expert and political scientist at the UMR LPED reminds us, "In Europe, the closing of borders and externalisation of migration policies is the doing of states before that of the European Union. They establish bilateral policies with African states geared towards limiting mobility upstream and readmissionsThird countries' commitment to "readmit" their nationals involved in removal proceedings to their territory."

Beginning in the 1990s, the European Union aimed to shape its migration policy at the community level.
As such, in 1999 it established a common list of countries whose nationals are subject to visa requirements to enter the Schengen area. a European "blue card", equivalent to the American "green card" was also created in 2009 for highly-skilled non-European workers. For other categories of mobility – family reunification, unskilled labourers – it became increasingly difficult to enter and settle in Europe.  

In addition, the European Union sought to externalise its migration policy, by establishing European border control by African states themselves. It concluded association and later partnership agreements with several African states which imposed migration control obligations and gradually made their efforts in this area a precondition for economic, trade and other forms of cooperation.



Poster in Niger to combat illegal immigration to Europe.

© IRD - Florence Boyer

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In parallel, the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime was adopted in Palermo in 2000. An additional protocol was signed by 147 countries committed to combating the "smuggling of migrants" by adopting laws to support this fight. The stated goal was to eliminate networks and punish the economy surrounding this "traffic".

"In general, African states' laws on migration had not changed since the 1960s in Maghreb countries and since the 1980s in West Africa," explains Delphine Perrin. "Some countries did not even have any laws in this area. Following the Palermo protocol in 2000 and in response to pressure from the European Union, the Maghreb countries, in particular, adopted repressive laws aimed at individuals who cross or attempt to cross their borders illegally. But the primary victims of such legislation were the nationals of these states and the inhabitants of neighbouring countries. For example, Moroccans who travelled to Libya could be imprisoned in Tunisia for attempting to emigrate illegally, which led to conflicts between the countries, particularly in the 2000s." 


Blocking the routes

In 2015, in the midst of what Europeans refer to as the "migrant crisis" – in connection with the massive arrival of Syrians due to the civil war and the departure of Africans from Libya following the escalation of internal conflicts – the Valetta Summit on Immigration, organised between the European Union and African states, set up an emergency trust fund "for stability and addressing the root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons in Africa." Endowed with €4.85 billion at the end of 2020, it funds projects for policy cooperation and development aid, and support and care for refugees and internally displaced persons.




The International Migration Office (OIM) opened a reception and transit centre for migrants in Niamey, Niger, in 2016

© Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, Flickr.

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"In exchange, African states are tasked with blocking migration routes," says Florence Boyer, geographer and anthropologist at the UMR URMIS. "As such, in 2015 Niger received support from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to bring its new legislation into compliance with the Palermo protocol. It is the primary beneficiary of this trust fund in West Africa. The state now punishes the transport of non-Nigerien migrants who seek to cross a border illegally. The goal is to stop the transport of people to Algeria and Libya. And this legislation has been quite effective.

A year after it was drafted, the law was applied in the final days of August 2016: the Nigerien police arrested 137 individuals and seized some one hundred vehicles in Agadez, a departure city for migrants headed to Libya and Algeria. However, for years, convoys of vehicles transporting up to 35 individuals each had crossed the desert under police control. One of the civil servants' missions: verifying that drivers complied with regulations and paid taxes related to the transport of persons. The application of this legislation therefore sparked tensions in the region.

An inevitable consequence of this: instead of being shut down, migration routes have continued and become increasingly dangerous. "Today, each smuggler travels alone, without a convoy," continues Florence Boyer. "They avoid cities where there are a lot of control checkpoints: coming from Zinder, in the south, they cross the Ténéré desert heading north without going through Agadez, which is very dangerous. And they no longer stop at water points where the police wait: they drop the migrants off in the desert, go get water and then find them again. So the travellers now face the risk of a vehicle breaking down or being abandoned by the smuggler. The system that brought safety to such journeys has been destroyed."



© IRD – Julien Brachet

Migrants headed for Libya in the Ténéré desert

Migration has continued

In light of all this, has the restrictive European policy achieved its objectives? The study entitled "Three sub-Saharan migration systems in times of policy restriction" published in 2020 shows that migration between sub-Saharan Africa and the European Union has continued. The likelihood of migrating has not decreased, but migrants' routes have changed, since they develop alternate strategies to achieve their goals, as seen in the Nigerian example.

They therefore settle in new destination countries when migration policies of traditional receiving countries are tightened. An increasing number of Senegalese, who previously went to France, have decided to settle in Spain and Italy, where conditions for entering the territory are easier and there are greater employment opportunities. Furthermore, the researchers noted that individuals tend to adopt new strategies due to how difficult it is to obtain a visa. For example, they apply for a study visa, travel without papers, or seek asylum upon arriving at their destination, whereas previously, it was easier for them to migrate as workers or through family reunification. Lastly, the adoption of increasingly restrictive migration policies has corresponded to fewer individuals returning to their home countries.

Staying where they are

"Policymakers want to put in place barriers to prevent migration, but this has had the opposite effect: migrants no longer return home," points out Marie-Laurence Flahaux, demographer at the UMR LPED and author of the study. "The Senegalese, for example, used to come to France to work and then return to their country a few years later, where their families had stayed. They could come back to France years later to work again if necessary. Today, migrants assess their opportunity to return based on what awaits them in their home country, as well as on the possibility of coming back to France later. But the travel conditions are so difficult that they prefer to stay in their destination country."




Intention to stay less than 10 years in the destination country has decreased significantly between 1975 and 2008.

© Cris Beauchemin, Marie-Laurence Flahaux et Bruno Schoumaker .

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These travel difficulties also give rise to "involuntary immobility", meaning that individuals sometimes remain several years in a transit country – Morocco or Algeria for example – before being able to leave, since travelling on increasingly difficult migration routes has increased the cost of these journeys.

Therefore, while new migration policies have dramatically changed individuals' routes and situations, according to researchers, they have not achieved their primary objective: curbing migration between Africa and Europe.  



The Cameroonian exception

The vast majority of African states have strengthened their legal arsenal against illegal immigration, apart from Cameroon, an exception on the continent. Since its independence in 1960, it has supported free movement. Within the CEMAC zone (Central African Economic and Monetary Community) which is made up of six countries – Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Chad – Cameroon is the first to recognise the CEMAC passport which allows individuals to travel without a visa within the sub-region."The Head of State, who is responsible for migration policy, has a decisively optimistic discourse in this area," explains Christelle Bikoi, a research fellow at Cameroon's National Centre for Education. "Cameroon seeks to be open, a territory providing refuge for those who need it. The State has therefore adopted a policy to receive refugees from conflict zones in Niger, Central African Republic and Chad. There are an especially high number of these refugees in the country." In light of its particularly flexible migration policy, the State of Cameroon also faces a high level of youth emigration, especially students, to Western countries and some African countries such as Senegal, Algeria and South Africa.

Bush taxi transporting travellers between Tahoua and Garin Bayou, in Niger.

© IRD – Florence Boyer

Migrants as adventurers

"I went on an adventure," "I'm an adventurer" or "I left to seek out a life, to find myself" are some of the ways African migrants describe their experiences. "These recurring expressions give us insight into these individuals' aspirations to experience new ways of living and being that are less restrictive, more intense, more dignified. Self-actualisation takes precedence over economic concerns. Adventure therefore becomes a way of life," asserts Sylvie Bredeloup, socio-anthropologist at the UMR LPED.


Do the Senegalese dream of electric sheep?

Realisation : Casey Andrews et Enzo Fasquelle. Scientific Advisor : Sylvie Bredeloup


Individualistic and community-minded

Migration as adventure has only recently been taken into consideration by researchers who specialise in migration. In the 1960s, research on this subject was conducted by scientists living primarily in Western countries, based on the realities encountered in major metropolises of receiving countries: African migrants from modest backgrounds, usually farmers in their countries, who become labourers and live in group homes. The focus was on the notion of solidarity between immigrants and their countries of origin, their desire to reinvest the money they earned for the development of their region




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- Interview with Harouna in Senegal: "I set out on an adventure in search of knowledge, wealth and everything!"

Excerpt from the "Travellers' Words" installation presented by Gilles Balizet, Sylvie Bredeloup, Charles Grémont (IRD, LPED) and Ludo Mepa (Les Obliques, la Disquette) for European Researchers' Night, Aix-en-Provence, 2021.

"These researchers had a Eurocentric view of migration," adds Sylvie Bredeloup. "Today, researchers have qualified these ideas. First, mobility was and still is intra-African. Second, it is not the poorest people who leave. In order to leave, they must have economic, cultural or social capital. And lastly, migration must at once allow individuals to grow personally and support friends and family in their projects – the only way to assert one's prestige. There is thus no definitive opposition between individuals and communities in African migration, but rather the incorporation of complex, hybrid, evolving processes, the overlapping of individual and collective destinies."

Testimonial: Bamadi's journey marked by injury



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Bamadi, a young Malian from Kita, had to return home after being attacked and injured by armed gangs in Tripoli. He tells his story in a film shown to young Malians as part of a research programme conducted by Sandrine Mesplé-Somps and Björn Nilsson.

This data is confirmed by a recent survey of 2,000 young men from the Kita Circle Malian Territorial Authority grouping together several municipalities, which has legal personality and financial autonomy in Mali conducted by economists Sandrine Mesplé-Somps and Björn Nilsson. 60% of the respondents said they want to leave home. Out of these respondents, half wish to remain within Mali, 22% wish to remain on the African continent, and 18% express a desire to leave Africa. Moreover, two thirds of those who hope to migrate said that their migration plans were personal first and foremost, and that they did not want their families to be informed.

A journey full of obstacles

Researchers underscore the idea that migrants play an active rather than passive role in their journey. Their personalities, capabilities (rollover note: an individual's actual potential to choose diverse combinations of "ways of functioning", meaning, for example, eating, moving around, getting an education, taking part in political life etc.) evolve over the course of their journey, which is much longer and more complex than in the past. "To understand the issues relating to integration in European countries, we must not only study emigration candidates' situations in their home countries, but also take into consideration the many transformations that occur over the course of migration journeys," says Nelly Robin, geographer at the UMR CEPED. "Everything is renegotiated during these unique migration experiences, which can sometimes last over ten years."  

While the routes taken by migrants are ancient – they are those of the salt and slave trade through the Sahara – they are constantly changing depending on political realities and individuals' choices. For several years now, for example, migration paths have connected trans-Saharan routes with those of the Balkans. When Syrians were fleeing to Europe in 2015, migrants who were engineers created an information exchange platform: it provided a list of existing solutions for those who were on the routes and made it easier for them to adapt to the various obstacles they may encounter. "These itineraries are a combination of opportunities, constraints, resources and chance," explains the geographer. "The areas travelled through, means used and personal choices – implying individual decision and intention – lead migrants to reconfigure their migration plans."






In Senegal, the sea route to the Canary Islands became the preferred route starting in 2005. That year, 30,000 departures for the Spanish islands were recorded. And despite the dangerous nature of these journeys  – 5,000 bodies would ultimately be recovered from the ocean – young Senegalese continued to embark on dugout canoes in the years that followed. The closing of land borders amid the Covid-19 epidemic revived this deadly route – 16,700 immigrants arrived in the Canary Islands in 2020 according to the Spanish Ministry of the Interior – raising concerns among politicians and citizens about its dangers: 414 individuals died that year while attempting to reach the Spanish archipelago.


Preparing to return

Why take such risks? The idea of a "glorious" return is ingrained in people's minds. "Failure is not acceptable," says Sylvie Bredeloup. "When you leave, you have a duty to succeed. So migrants are not adverse to taking risks: they prefer death over shame. Those who return because they are forced to, or who have not prepared for such a return, hide or don't go to see their families. And some who have "returned unsuccessfully" are pushed to leave again since they cannot stand the dishonour of returning to their country empty-handed."

The researcher describes meeting Burkinabes returning from Libya who are ready to leave again despite the difficulties they encountered in the country and while crossing borders. Since their families lack resources, they count on the contacts they made in Libya to try their luck again. The same is true in Mali: even when faced with accounts of traumatic experiences during these journeys, individuals do not change their migration aspirations. They have great hope for a better economic and social future provided by migration and an unwavering belief in their destiny.   




Malian woman with breast cancer must travel within their country, their continent and to Europe at times to receive care.

© IRD – Clémence Schantz

Health: risks and hopes of mobility

Is travelling detrimental to people's health?  For individuals who migrate to countries where they do not have housing or stable employment, and where it is difficult for them to regularise their status, the answer is yes. For African women and men who are migrants living in Europe, long-term insecurity is associated with a deterioration in health, independent of their individual characteristics. "With limited resources, people eat poorly," explains Annabel Desgrées du Loû, demographer at the UMR CEPED. "For the most part, they have hard jobs, like materials handling or home care, and must work difficult hours. These poor living conditions may lead to chronic illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure or stress-related mental illness."



Moreover, their precarious conditions also make them vulnerable to coercive situations, in particular, sexual coercion. The ANRS Parcours study on the social, administrative and health experiences of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa in France showed that in exchange for housing, papers or financial aid, African migrants, especially women, must endure forced, unprotected sexual intercourse. As a result, they represent the second-largest group affected by HIV in France, after homosexual individuals. Contrary to commonly held beliefs, nearly half of those who test positive for HIV contracted the virus after arriving in France.

How can they receive medical care in such unstable conditions? "The French healthcare system works pretty well, it protects migrants through State Medical Assistance – which is available to individuals without a residence permit if they have been in France for longer than three months," explains the researcher. "The Parcours study showed that two years after their arrival, 90% of individuals had healthcare coverage, regardless of their residence permit status. But not everyone knows about the system, individuals often don't realize that they are entitled to care when they get sick. Pregnancy or screenings for infectious diseases therefore represent opportunities to access the healthcare system and this health coverage."    




But this facilitated access to care must not mask the more painful consequences. For HIV-positive migrants, once they are diagnosed through screening, and have started to receive treatment, their lives are transformed once again and some experience "a social disgrace," according to Dolorès Pourette, health anthropologist at the UMR CEPED. Some migrants who had wished to return to their country, where their spouses and children live, must remain in France for medical treatment, which leads to families being broken apart. Single individuals are also faced with a breakdown of personal relationships : they do not allow themselves to start a family, out of fear of infecting their partner and because they do not want to tell their family and friends that they have contracted HIV. "They stigmatise themselves," asserts the researcher. "In Africa, HIV is particularly stigmatised since the virus is associated with homosexuality and practices regarded as deviant. The Parcours study shed light on how lives are shattered by HIV. Certain people met during the study explained that they had to lower their ambitions, even though they had a job that was valued in their home country. But as migrants, these individuals wanted to show an ideal image of themselves in their country of residence as well as in their home county. These ruptures extend to their ideas about death: they have a hard time accepting the idea of staying in France and dying there. They would rather go back to their country, close to their loved ones, and be able to receive funeral rites when the time comes."


© Projet Makasi

The Makasi intervention research project is carried out with the association Afrique Avenir, which organises HIV and hepatitis testing in the Parisian region, as pictured here in Sevran, in the Seine-Saint-Denis department.

Another disease that affects mainly African migrants is hepatitis B, resulting from infection by the hepatitis B virus (HBV) transmitted through blood or other bodily fluids. Individuals born in sub-Saharan Africa frequently contract this virus through prenatal transmission, at birth, or during early childhood through contact with infected family members. As such, they are at higher risk of developing the chronic form of the disease. According to a survey conducted during the "Parcours" study on access to care in individuals from sub-Saharan Africa living with chronic hepatitis B, the prevalence of the disease among this population in France was estimated at 5.25% in 2004, which is eight times higher than that of the general population born in mainland France. And out of the individuals who had recently started receiving treatment for chronic hepatitis B between 2008 and 2011, more than four out of six were born in a sub-Saharan African country.

"In general, migrants feel uncertainty and a lack of understanding about treatment and follow-up for the disease," adds Dolorès Pourette. Although the presence of the virus does not always lead to symptoms, the viral load must be regularly monitored through blood tests and other exams. If there is a large amount of the virus, patients are prescribed antiviral treatments that must be taken daily.  

"When the virus becomes active, patients require lifelong treatment to control its progression and prevent cirrhosis and liver cancer. But this treatment does not usually cure chronic hepatitis B definitively," continues the researcher. "Unfortunately, healthcare providers do not provide adequate responses to patients' questions, since hepatitis B is a complicated disease that has not benefitted from the same level of engagement as the fight against HIV: there is no comprehensive care system, with the intervention of a social assistant or a nurse for therapeutic follow-up, for example."



Migrating to give life

But migration also provides Africans with the opportunity to seek medical treatment that does not exist in their country or on their continent. As such, many travel to the capital city, a neighbouring country, or even France, to benefit from assisted reproduction.




Fertile and nurturing, the "woman with infant" is an idealised, glorified figure recurring in African statuary. Below, a maternity figure created by a master from Kasadi, where the statue was collected in the late 19th century.

© AfricaMuseum (Tervuren) - Wikipedia

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Infertility is not considered a public health issue in Africa. Therefore, no public policy exists in this area, nor is care provided by health services. Couples who wish to seek medical treatment to help them have a child must turn to private clinics. "States do not regulate the use of reproductive technologies at all," explains Véronique Duchesne, anthropologist at the UMR CEPED. "Private clinics have invested in this area, but the costs of such technology are very high. And there are no statistics on the results, such as the number of attempts or the success rate. Those who are able to therefore leave the continent to have a child through assisted reproduction."

LThe Douala Airport clinic in Cameroon provides assisted reproductive treatment for infertile couples.

© IRD - Jean-Grégoire Kayoum

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While travelling abroad for assisted reproduction was once a privilege reserved for elites, new urban social classes now make such journeys as well. Middle-class couples travel from country to country with financial support from family members. Such support is crucial, since conceiving a child is expensive: in France, foreign nationals who are not residents pay the full price of the process, which may amount to over €2,000. If it is not successful, women, primarily, travel to a new country where they discover a new set of laws on assisted reproduction each time – for access to in vitro fertilization, egg donation or surrogacy –  and face increasing isolation. "It's a never-ending quest, which I have described as procreative vagrancy," continues the researcher. "Women leave their jobs and homes, others refuse to return to their country until they have had a child. The lack of support from African states makes life difficult for these people and has significant public health consequences."

Treating breast cancer


Kadiatou Faye, president of the association "Les combattantes du cancer" gives a speech to raise awareness in Bamako during National Breast Cancer Awareness month in October 2021.

© IRD – Clémence Schantz

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Wanting to become pregnant is not the only reason women travel for health reasons: in West Africa, women with breast cancer must also travel within their continent or to Europe. In this region, the disease affects particularly young women, who are diagnosed with advanced disease due to a lack of screening, the fact that they live far from health centres and the high cost of health care. As a result, a third of the women who arrive at the hospital to begin treatment already suffer from metastases. In Mali, where breast cancer affects 2,500 women a year, patients must travel to Bamako for treatment: only four hospitals in the capital city provide treatment for this disease and each one specialises in one part of the treatment – operation, chemotherapy etc. Some Malian women also travel to Senegal to seek treatment in Dakar. "Others go to Tunisia, a country where no visa is required," says Clémence Schantz, sociologist at the UMR CEPED. "And significant medical tourism is developing there. The wealthiest patients travel to France on a tourist visa. They therefore find themselves in an illegal situation and experience a sharp loss of social status."


Over the past year, Clémence Schantz and the Synovie programme research team have been working with the "Les combattantes du cancer" association to document the many ruptures – marital, professional, sexual –  that occur as a result of this disease and this mobility.  "We develop interview grids with the association and work with its members to study patients' responses," explains the researcher. "Our goal is to gain insight into how this disease affects women's lives, and pass this knowledge on to partners on the ground to improve care for these women."


© IRD – Clémence Schantz

Drissa Traoré, surgeon at Hospital Point G which treats breast cancer through surgery and chemotherapy, in Bamako, Mali.

For now, seeking treatment is not a major motivation for migration – unlike social or economic reasons – but health-related mobility could grow due to an increase in diseases such as cancer, for which little treatment is available in certain African countries, and new needs of the emerging middle classes, as seen with assisted reproduction.

In April 2017, Morocco organised "L'Afrique en capitale" in Rabat, a month-long event dedicated to African culture.

© Farid Mernissi – Wikipedia

Transforming societies

Intra and extra-African mobility transforms the societies of home countries, as well as those of host countries.

In Morocco, although the proportion of foreign nationals residing in the country is minimal in relation to the Moroccan population  – 0.25 % of the population according to the latest general population census in 2014 – migration has become a political issue since the early 2000s. The importance attached to the issue of irregular immigration and transit to Europe among individuals from West and Central Africa has contributed to this.  

In 2013, 77,500 foreigners, of various national origins and administrative statuses (students, workers, spouses of Moroccans etc.), had a residence permit. Existing data supports the fact that immigration to Morocco, whether through legal residence or otherwise, is not reserved to those described as sub-Saharan.  

Although Morocco is further developing its relationships with sub-Saharan African countries, the dynamics of the Euro-Moroccan partnership – which seeks to combat irregular emigration to the European continent – has led to recurring denunciations of the security policies adopted by the country in recent years, in particular against migrants referred to as sub-Saharan. Against this mixed backdrop, Morocco has changed its policy for welcoming foreigners, which has also dramatically changed perceptions and certain practices related to welcoming foreigners.  


Those who were once seen as illegal aliens, without rights, have gradually come to be considered as immigrants to Morocco, and legitimate beneficiaries of certain systems and fundamental rights. The king of Morocco, Mohammed VI, has helped bring about a change in perceptions through several of his speeches, calling for support for the integration of "African brothers" and a new understanding of migration phenomena, beyond Morocco. Special programmes have been set up to support the regularisation and integration of migrants in irregular situations.

In 2013 and 2016, two special campaigns were therefore organised to regularise their residence in Morocco, as requested by nearly 50,000 individuals, of different national origins, the largest share of whom were from West and Central African countries. This group was specifically targeted by the operations. While nearly 85% of the applicants obtained a positive response through the first special regularisation campaign, there is insufficient data on the proportion of positive responses issued during the second operation (2016/2017) and on the actual number of residence permits issued. "This decision to organise an exceptional regularisation operation for foreigners was also the subject of a publication in September 2013 by the National Council for Human Rights, providing recommendations related to the situation of foreigners residing in Morocco, whether legally, illegally or as refugees," explains Nadia Khrouz, a Moroccan political science researcher at Mohammed V University, associated with the LPED and member of the coordinating team of the LMI Movida. "At the same time, a session was held to review Morocco's implementation of the international convention on the protection of the rights of all migrant workers and members of their families by the dedicated UN committee. Morocco therefore sought to position itself as a leader on migration governance and put in place a programme and reforms designed to support the integration of migrants, targeting especially individuals who had previously been considered in transit. European institutions also supported this strategy."

This policy was in keeping with Morocco's wish to assert itself as a leader within the African Union (AU, formerly OAU – Organisation of African Unity) which it rejoined in 2017 after leaving in 1984, following the admission of the Western Sahara to the OAU. In his speeches, Mohammed VI reiterates the Moroccan state's commitment to regain its position and role in Africa. This commitment has helped change societal views of "Africans" settled in Morocco and on opportunities for investment, especially political, for the country and the rest of the continent with partners, from Europe in particular.

The regularisation campaigns have also been accompanied by economic, legal, and educational support programmes for children, building on work carried out by civil society stakeholders who help migrants. "Foreigners now have easier access to government authorities, and these authorities have fewer prejudices against them," explains the researcher. "While irregular migrants have easier access to their fundamental rights than before – such as schooling for their children and civil registration services – a disconnect remains in the discourse of various bodies involved in this issue, between calls for developing a new paradigm for migration, in Morocco and beyond, and a continual focus on sub-Saharan migrants, who are still regularly stigmatised, hiding a much more complex reality."

Between regularising individuals referred to as migrants, and regularising procedures, this political momentum and its accompanying programmes, fuelled by initiatives such as the Global Compact for Migration (adopted in 2018 à Marrakech), has helped improved access to rights and change attitudes, in particular about those referred to as sub-Saharan migrants. "However, certain major reforms of the new immigration and asylum policy have been pending since 2014, such as the amendment to the law governing migration (law no. 02-03) and the one on asylum," says Nadia Khrouz.

These legislative and structural reforms, intended to support the continuation of work carried out within the framework of the new immigration and asylum policy, go hand in hand with changing perceptions, among the Moroccan people and the government authorities involved, and with the regularisaiton of procedures and legislation in force.




Evangelical Church of Morocco in a Protestant church in Rabat.

© Sophie Bava et Malik Nejmi

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"The growing number of Christian migrants from sub-Saharan and Central Africa in the country is transforming the religious landscape in Morocco, by reviving historic churches (Catholic and Protestant) that have been dormant since independence and the departure of colonial settlers, and creating a multitude of places of worship, which are called home churches," explains Sophie Bava, socio-anthropologist at the LPED and coordinator of the LMI Movida. There are now no fewer than thirty home churches in Rabat, and fifty or so in Casablanca for a few thousand worshippers. African Christian students have created numerous Neo-Pentecostal churchesstrand of Evangelical Christianity emphasising gifts of the Holy Spirit or God's grace there, also called revivalist or charismatic churches, which are not recognized by Morocco's Ministry of Habous and Islamic Affairs. These places of worship are set up in apartments that are shared or dedicated to religious life, where an alter and chairs are installed.

"At the same time, official churches are overflowing," says the researcher. "They have to recruit ministers and priests. A minister even told me, 'I feel like I'm living in the early days of Christianity!' In response to the growing number of worshippers, Christian churches created conditions for overseeing theology based on the Al Mowafaqa Ecumenical Institute of Theology, in Rabat, in 2012. They sought to maintain control over religious practices because they feared they would be rejected by the Moroccan authorities." The Moroccan state deported 110 African and American ministers suspected of proselytising, some ten years ago.


Beyond the number of African Christian migrants in the country, how can such a revival of Christianity in Morocco be explained?  "Ministers provide their congregations with a comforting space, and material and spiritual support. In their sermons, they provide migrants with figures and metaphors drawn from the Bible that resemble themselves. They act as a sort of coach! By drawing on the experiences of figures from sacred texts confronted with exile, poverty, the crossing of the desert, they help migrants endure their situation," adds Sophie Bava.

The official churches are also involved in projects run by the International Organisation for Migration (OIM) based on return assistance for migrants, through the Catholic charity organisation CaritasCaritas Morocco is an institution of the Catholic church, which also belongs to the international "Caritas Internationalis" network created by the Holy See in 1951 to oversee its social and charitable activities in over 160 countriesor the CEIInternational Aid Committee (CEI) created in 2004 by the Evangelical Church of Morocco (EEAM) which provides migrants with aid and support services." Once again, the role of the king who is seen as the "Commander of the Faithful" is pivotal. In 2019, he invited Pope Francis to Morocco to discuss the issue of migration in particular. "The arrival of Christian migrants in Morocco therefore led the national authorities to rethink the relationship with Christianity in Moroccan society, a Christianity that comes from Southern countries," says the researcher.



© Sophie Bava et Malik Nejmi

Ministers use examples from the Gospel relating to migration in their sermons.

Languages enrich one another… but also disappear

Migration journey influence individuals' linguistic repertoires. First, by travelling from one region or country to another, migrants learn new languages. Second, the structure of languages evolves depending on speakers' proficiency. "For example, Wolof-speaking migrants will use the same structures used in their own language when speaking Italian", explains Joseph Jean François Nunez, linguist at the UMR SEDyL. "Purists will see this change in a negative light, but people who speak this way do so to respond to their needs for communication. Certain aspects, which are seen as foreign, are gradually integrated into a speaker’s linguistic repertoire, thereby enriching languages."
Sometimes, when people move to a new region or country, they stop speaking their native language. In Dakar, for example, those who speak SérèreLanguage spoken in Senegal and Gambia which belongs to the Atlantic branch of the Niger-Congo languages will prefer to express themselves in Wolof for fear of being considered a "bumpkin". Certain languages are therefore becoming increasingly rare, or disappearing , out of fear of the stigma associated with the ethnic groups they belong to.   
Lastly, it is crucial for parents to pass their language on to their children to preserve linguistic heritage. Some families prefer to speak the host country language to help children fit into the society they live in. They therefore experience an intergenerational disconnect and must learn their parents' language by themselves when they grow up. "In other families, the native language is a central family priority, and is seen by parents as essential to maintaining their culture. Families position themselves based on economic, integration, and language revitalisation concerns. Mobility may therefore enrich languages, but may also threaten them when they are no longer spoken or passed on," concludes Joseph Jean François Nunez.




Urban transformations

Mobility is therefore a driver of social change. On the African continent, this is evidenced by the sprawling of cities as they absorb diverse population flows, whether local, regional or international.
While migrants initially seek out homes for people from the same place of origin, they spread out into outlying urban areas as soon as they are able to rent an accommodation independently or own property.

"This centrifugal movement, which tends to move away from the centre, aligns with that of natives of the city and contributes to the development of larger urban areas," explains Monique Bertrand, geographer at the UMR CESSMA. "Over time, these migrants define themselves less and less as migrants, and emphasise their identity as city dwellers."




© IRD - Hubert Bataille

The outskirts of Bamako grow to keep pace with population flows.

The outskirts of Bamako, for example, have seen the arrival of many households from the capital. This is a trans-regional flow that the census defines as migratory, on the same level as movements including international migration and returnees, which affect many working-age adults from the villages swallowed up by this urban sprawl.

This sustains a significant turnover of seasonal migrants, which is reflected in the housing boom and security crisis that is hitting Mali. The new outlying bedroom communities bring together diverse housing trajectories. This dynamic helps deconstruct migration, which is portrayed as an irreversible, centripetal flowtending to move towards the centre . Moreover, other men and women only pass through capital cities to work occasionally and then explore other migration routes.

Learning and sharing




African students, as pictured here at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, are more likely to study abroad than students from other continents.

© IRD - Céline Ravallec

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The final aspect of social transformation brought about by mobility is education. Indeed, Africa is the continent where students are most likely to study abroad: 4 to 5% of the total number of students  – 300,000 – leave their country, compared to 2 to 3% on average in the rest of the world. They travel within and across their continent, mainly to South Africa – the 3rd most attractive country with 35,000 foreign African students  – and to the Maghreb – Morocco welcomes 15 to 20,000 sub-Saharan students – as well as to Europe, the United States and China.

These students who emigrate take action for their home countries, and not only through remittances. They create associations in their host countries to share their knowledge and expertise. Certain associations express humanitarian aims, such as Beninese Doctors of France, which provides medical services that are not available in Benin. "Local doctors call on the Diaspora to treat patients," explains Jean-Baptiste Meyer, socio-economist at CEPED. "Doctors who have emigrated therefore provide local medical communities with additional expertise. Many individuals living abroad wish to play an active role in helping their home countries."

However, for such diasporas to be effective, certain elements are crucial. "For the diasporas to be productive, the home and host countries must actively contribute to and develop ties between the communities, through stable interlocutors. As such, South Arica has attempted to institutionalise these scientific communities, which can help drive development. If we look to Asia, the large number of young Asian engineers and computer science researchers in Silicon Valley in recent decades has in turn helped launch Indian technology," explains the researcher.  



Fatima Sellami, a Moroccan student, conducts an experiment at the Laboratory of Tropical Soil Ecology at the IRD site in Bondy.

© IRD - Annick Aing

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In Africa, eight states are involved in the ACE PartnerSupported by IRD, the French Development Agency (AFD), the World Bank, the Association of African Universities (AAU) and Inria).1 project to establish centres of excellence and provide talented students with satisfactory study conditions. "These centres have been created to keep students on the continent. But they create opportunities to discuss with other intellectuals, which makes African students want to seek out better living conditions elsewhere. Ultimately, we observe paradoxical dynamics in which these centres raise students' ambitions and may lead them to leave," adds Jean-Baptiste Meyer.

In general, two thirds of students who emigrate return to their home country after completing their studies. According to the researcher, social and family aspects are taken into consideration in such returns. "Enhancing professional development prospects in countries of origin so as to increase the number of returns and facilitating exchange between scientific diasporas would help create internal/external dynamics to foster the transfer of knowledge resulting from mobility," he concludes.

African migration therefore transforms both home and host societies in overall way. Whether from an economic, religious, linguistic or intellectual perspective, migration contributes to the overall transformation of the continent.



Kayes, an essential boon from migration that exacerbates inequalities

Nearly 10% of Malians – 1.8 million out of the country's 18 million inhabitants – receive remittances from abroad. This shows how important migrants are to the economy of their home country. Malian migrants who live in a member country of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) send one month's wages (equivalent to minimum wage) per year to their family in their home country. "The Kayes region, in south-western Mali, receives half of these remittances," says economist Sandrine Mesplé-Somps. "And for good reason. 44% of families in the Kayes region have a family member who has left: it's the region most affected by emigration." Income from migration has lifted approximately 300,000 Malians out of poverty, which represents a 2.4 % reduction in the national poverty rate. However, the majority of this income does not target the most needy. Rather, it is the richest households who benefit the most. This is the case in Mali on average, but is especially true in the Kayes region: remittances account for almost 40% of the average consumption of the richest 20% of inhabitants of this region, compared to only 10% for others. Remittances therefore tend to increase inequality, with one explanation being that migrants do not come from the poorest families in the country, but rather from middle or even upper-class families.