The house tells the migrant’s story

For many people, it is a boat that symbolises migration ‒ an overcrowded boat on the stormy Mediterranean bringing people to Europe. For migrants themselves, however, the house is a much more fitting symbol ‒ the house they left behind, or the house they will build with the money earned by working abroad.

House and home are the same in many languages. So the symbolic image of a house does not necessarily mean a physical building, but can also refer to the family back home the migrant seeks to help by travelling to Europe. On the surface, migration is always about earning money and the social possibilities it brings – to provide for a family, to get married or set up a small business.

During his years of fieldwork in Senegal, NAI researcher and anthropologist Knut Graw met many young men who had either been to Europe or had plans to go there. Not unusually, they had decided to migrate when they were as young as 12 or 13 years.
“In almost every village, someone has migrated to Europe. Often one could tell which family had a relative away just by observing which houses were repainted and repaired and who had fancier clothes or perhaps a bigger television set. Of course, young boys also notice this, and want the same things,” Graw says.

He points out that it is never the poorest who migrate.
“As much as they want to, they simply can’t, because the trip is unaffordable. Some of those l spoke to spent more than €2,000to get to Europe,” Graw remarks.

So why don’t they invest that money at home instead of risking all of it on an uncertain journey to Europe? According to Graw, this is not easy if you don’t have the right connections and can’t gain access to formal markets. Even so, competition among income-generating enterprises is intense in small-town Senegal.

There are also other, more subtle reasons for migration that have to do with today’s global world. People know so much more about what other places have to offer compared to just a few decades ago.
“Migration may be a response to the frustration one feels at being obliged to buy Chinese counterfeit goods instead of the high-quality originals, or having to buy clothes at a second-hand shop instead of a boutique,” Graw observes.

To the top