The Nordic Africa Institute

Research at a glance

We are trying to broaden the conversation on migration

Researchers critical of the politicised migration debate

We are trying to broaden the conversation
Date • 8 Mar 2023

Irregular migration – people crossing borders without official papers and permission from authorities – from Africa to Europe has over the past couple of decades become a hotly debated issue in politics and media. According to Jesper Bjarnesen and Papa Sow, migration researchers at the Nordic Africa Institute, tunnel-visioned focus on one particular kind of migration makes the debate too narrow.

Researchers Jesper Bjarnesen and Papa Sow have recently started a collaboration with CODESRIA, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, on the mobilities of young people in West Africa. They hope that research from the collaboration will help nuance the political debate.

“African migration has become too politicised and the policy measures are too often targeted towards restricting it”, Jesper Bjarnesen says.

“By broadening the perspective to include a lot of different kinds of mobilities – for example, the way that people cross borders on an everyday basis to look for new opportunities, to sell their goods or engage in seasonal agriculture – we are trying to broaden the conversation”, he continues.

Many European states have developed means and methods to discourage young Africans from migrating irregularly to Europe. Among the most obvious measures are the EU’s Frontex border patrol boats and the high, barbed wire border fences surrounding Ceuta and Melilla, the Spanish enclaves in North Africa.

“We have to go beyond the view of migration governance as being limited to surveillance and restrictive measures”, Sow says.

Migration discouragement campaigns

The NAI-CODESRIA collaboration recently kicked off with a workshop involving some 20 researchers. One of them is Cecilia Schenetti, a PhD student from Maastricht University. She has studied migration discouragement campaigns European states have funded and organised, a part of the migration governance toolbox that has received relatively little media attention.

“Returnee migrants are very active in the dissemination of campaign messages”, Schenetti says.

For 15 months, she has followed in the footsteps of Senegalese returnee migrants and grassroot groups working for organisations implementing restrictive migration policies. Through interviews and so-called participatory observation, she has mapped their campaign methods. Participatory observation is a research method, commonly used in social sciences, where the researcher over a longer time period takes part and engages in the day-to-day activities of the people he or she wants to observe and learn more about.

“There’s a campaign called Migrants as messengers, where returnee migrants go on stage and tell their stories of migration and return, highlighting the struggles, difficulties and risky journeys”, Schenetti explains.

According to Schenetti, they fit into the structures and objectives of the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) and various NGOs, but it is not very clear what their incentives for participating are.

“Some might want to portray a different image of themselves, especially if they are seen as failures – because they failed in their project of migration. The campaigns give them space to re-make their image in positive terms, because now they’re seen as exemplars. It also helps them to share their stories, the pain that they have been through, with other returnees. They also gain something from it – small amounts of money, trainings, materials of different kinds.”

Schenetti has interviewed staff members of IOM and several civil society organisations about how they deal with the ambiguity of implementing these campaigns, while at the same time being aware of the political implications behind them and that their messages aim to reduce the young people’s mobility.

“They perform their roles by playing a part, by doing tasks that create control. But on the other hand, they find ways of withdrawing and self-distancing from the dominant message of this campaign, because they don’t necessarily want to comply with the dominant discourse and images that these campaigns perpetrate about migration and about what migrants are”, Schenetti says.

The double punishment of young migrants

Sofiane Bouhdiba, professor of demography at the University of Tunis, was also part of the NAI-CODESRIA workshop. He has studied the health challenges young migrants faced in the time of Covid-19, interviewing migrants and representatives from NGOs such as Médecins du Monde and student associations in Tunisia.

His research identifies what he calls “the double punishment of migrants”. First, poor integration into society hinders their access to health services. Second, as foreigners they are systematically stigmatised; for example, being accused of having brought diseases with them or in some cases even of having provoked the wrath of God.

“In times of health crises, the migrant is considered a threat; coming from the outside, maybe he has ‘the virus’”, Bouhdiba says.

Most sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia work in the informal sector, and lacked the financial means to cope with periods of self-isolation or quarantine. Also, migrants did not have access to the financial support programmes that were available to millions of Tunisian citizens working in the sector.

“With confinement, they were obliged to stay at home – so, no more money”, Bouhdiba says.

Apart from describing the precarious situation of the migrants themselves, his research also looks at why authorities, such as the municipality of Tunis, failed to support the migrants, and how grassroots solidarity movements – especially the Cellule de solidarité africaine Covid-19 Tunisie – stepped in to organise various kinds of support.

The historical perspective

Hassoum Ceesay, director of the National Centre for Arts and Culture in the Gambia, also presented his work at the NAI-CODESRIA workshop. As a historian, he believes it is essential that history should be used to help policymakers design interventions that are attuned to the proper historical contexts.

“It is important to be conscious of history, to use history to inform, to draw parallels”, he says.

In the archives that he manages, Ceesay recently found a set of boxes labelled “Stowaways 1948-1949”. When he opened them, he found files that revealed the stories of young Gambians who had hidden themselves on ships sailing to the UK.

"I said, ‘Oh my god', there are over 90 cases of these migrants; of how they were captured inside the ships; of how they were disembarked in Hull, in Southampton, in Liverpool in the UK; of the police charging them”, he recounts.

One of the insights that struck Ceesay was the similarity between these stories, which are more than 70 years old, and some of the issues being debated today.

“Now, there is a blame game with the African governments, with the government in the Gambia, and the European Union – ‘You are doing this’, you are not doing this.’ It was the same back then; ‘How come they are coming every week? Are you searching the ships? Are they bribing the police?’”

“It was the same back then”, Ceesay concludes.


Generation Exodus, the NAI-CODESRIA research collaboration on youth mobilities in West Africa, will run this year and next year (2023-2024).