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Freedom to move, freedom to stay: the EU migration crisis through the lens of migrant West Africa

Bush BoundThe following is a guest blog post written by Paolo Gaibazzi, Social Anthropologist and Research Fellow at the Centre for Modern Oriental Studies (ZMO). Gaibazzi is also the author of Bush Bound: Young Men and Rural Permanence in Migrant West Africa. Below, Gaibazzi discusses how ‘staying put’ may shed light on current West African migrations.

How can the experience of a small, migrant-sending West African village contribute thoughts on the current migration crisis in Europe? Sabi is a rural community in the Gambia River valley with a long history of male international emigration in which I have had the privilege to live and do research. The resulting book – titled Bush Bound – is an account of how migration pervades everyday life in the community, but especially of how people continue staying on the land. I suggest that this small but significant laboratory of (im)mobility might help us rethink the assumptions about freedom, movement and sedentariness informing, and often distorting, European debates about African immigration.

Over the past turbulent weeks and months, Europe has experienced an unprecedented intensity of political activity and popular mobilization both in favour and against the freedom of movement. A number of European politicians and citizens fear uncontrolled invasions, and call for measures to keep migrants out, or at least to filter out allegedly bogus asylum seekers crossing borders clandestinely. Others have in contrast called for opening the borders, or at least making legal travel to Europe easier for people leaving behind misery and war, so that they may avoid risking their lives to reach Europe along undocumented routes. There is much less talk about the “freedom of staying”. In some segments of the civil society, especially in northern Africa, freedom or right to stay means that people should be entitled to live a dignified life at home free from the economic, political and social pressures that make departures desirable, if not compelling. In policy parlance, however, staying is more often viewed as an element of the EU management approach to migration: aid and development for communities of origins aimed at keeping people in their own places and thus keeping them from leaving for Europe. In other words, staying put is often understood as the antithesis of moving. Viewed from Sabi, this is a narrow definition.
For generations, Sabi young men have been migrating to Europe as well as to a number of other destinations in Africa, Asia and the Americas. As other Gambian youths, they have a number of good reasons for leaving: massive youth unemployment, degrading ecology and poor agricultural harvests, a suffocating dictatorship, but also the very fact that men place value on venturing out in search of fortune and cosmopolitan experience. Those targeting Europe are adamant to travel on a plane with a regular visa; at the same time, restrictive, costly and discretionary conditions set by the Schengen application procedure are a source of constant frustration among young men, and sometimes a reason for resolving to the ‘back way’ – as undocumented routes are called in the Gambia. Gambians are one of the most represented national groups among those boat migrants arriving in Italy from Libya during 2014/15. There is no doubt that Sabi young men desire freer, safer and cheaper movement, though not necessarily to use it in a one-way fashion. As young men often put it: “We go to look for something [jobs, experience, etc.]. If we don’t find it, we come back, or we go elsewhere”.
Does this mean that young men would leave en masse, should restrictions to free movement be lifted? A deeper understanding of staying put, or immobility, may lead us beyond easy answers. The plight of young men should be taken seriously. Yet, on account of the grim conditions of the rural economy, one wonders why Sabi has not become a ghost village depleted by rural exodus; it is in contrast a thriving community. Here, young men do not simply ‘sit’, as they say, because they have no money or visas to travel abroad, or because they don’t wish to risk their lives at sea (and for that matter, many don’t). Some of them have to willy-nilly hold the fort while other men in their families are away; they must tend to the fields and care for children and elders, run the absent migrants’ housing projects and businesses, and more generally weave the fabric of an agrarian lifestyle thought to sustain both local and migrant life. Likewise, migrants are under an obligation to sustain those who stay behind. To be sure, this is no idyllic community of peasants stubbornly refusing to give up their agrarian lifestyle in spite of the pull of emigration. Staying put can be a hard and puzzling experience, and some struggle to secure recognition as a ‘sitter’. Failing to properly ‘sit’, rather than merely yearning for travel, may ultimately increase the pressure to emigrate. Still, one may safely conclude that in Sabi permanence is part and parcel of the migratory system, both sustaining and being made possible by it. Thus, EU-funded projects that uniquely conceive rural development as an antidote to emigration may easily fall short of its objectives in this village. By the same token, because migration and permanence are so intertwined in Sabi, restricting movement and making life hard for migrants might hamper the latter’s capacity to sustain those who stay behind. In sum, learning from Sabi’s “management” of migration and permanence might help broadening the spectrum of possibilities, at least it would certainly help to critically revise preset ideas about human behaviour and mobility that too often hinder debates about what the freedom of movement concretely means. Perhaps, if movement were to become more viable, Sabi young men might not only be freer to move, but also to explore what it means to stay put.


 Read the introduction to ‘Bush Bound: Young Men and Rural Permanence in Migrant West Africa’ here.