What happens if young migrants are deprived of maintaining contacts to close friends and relatives over a very long period of time and across different countries? What impact does this have on their personal development and their outlook on life?
In my Identities article, ‘Transnational social fields in forced immobility: relations of young Sub-Saharan African migrants in Morocco with their families and friends’, I attempt to find answers to these questions by focusing on young African migrants in Morocco. The young people that I interviewed had travelled without any family members or friends when they left their origin countries. All of them had to use a variety of legal and irregular means to cross borders during their journey through different countries. Most of them had been travelling months and sometimes years before arriving in Morocco. By the time they got there, they had used most of their financial resources and often had lost contact to their social networks. Because of their irregular status in Morocco, they could neither move back south nor travel further north towards Europe. Underemployment and poverty limited their access to social media and modern technologies, so that their ability to communicate with their relatives and friends became sporadic.
The article describes how the situation of so-called ‘forced immobility’ in which these young people find themselves can have devastating effects on their ability to maintain productive transnational relations with their families and friends abroad. I argue that the lack of contact with families and friends impacts on their ability to imagine and actively shape futures for themselves and their families. I believe that this calls into question the consequences of current migration policies which are geared to restrict migrants’ access to mobility and settlement in so-called ‘transit countries’. By this I mean that increasingly, migrant receiving states in the Global South which are labelled as ‘transit countries’, are actively collaborating with western nation states in preventing migrants opportunities to successfully settle in countries in the Global North, while at the same time not offering sufficient opportunities for them to reside on their territory with longer-term perspectives. Since 2016, when the article was originally published, these dynamics have been documented not only for so-called ‘transit countries’ in Africa or the Middle East but equally so for South America and Asia.
Migration policies, transnationalism and inequality
The article shows that while restrictive migration and settlement policies do not hinder migrants from travelling, they have severe consequences for migrant practices of transnationalism. By this I mean the ties and relationships that migrants have span across sending and receiving societies. Studies in many different places have shown that by creating transnational social ties in many different areas of life, migrants are able to re-shape cultural identifications and create innovative and very specific economic, social and political practices, which are often future orientated and geared to improve people’s social standing in different societies. In other words, transnationalism is not only vital for economic development in both origin and receiving states, but also fosters political participation across countries, as well as social and cultural practices that can enhance people’s opportunities for personal development and successful community participation in a diversity of places.
The extent to which people are able to make these transnational social fields work for them is dependent on the political, legal and social environment they find themselves in, and the social position they occupy within their host and home communities. Restrictive migration policies, which are geared to limit people’s mobility and settlement options in the places they are living in, are one of the factors which influence people’s political, legal and social environment because they not only lead to poverty, illegality and lack of access to economic, social and cultural rights in the country of residence, but also foster severe restrictions to people’s opportunities to travel across borders.
The impact of poverty and illegality on young people’s ability to stay connected with families and friends across borders
In Morocco, I found that one of the most important reasons why young migrants were unable to stay connected to their family and friends abroad is related to their restricted access to modern technologies, such as the phone or the internet. Almost no one owned a mobile phone, either because they got stolen frequently or had to be sold when money became scarce. In the few cases where people had a phone, it was often not charged with enough credit to make phone calls. Calls from internet cafes were also far too expensive for the majority of them.
Their dire economic situation also appeared to heighten a certain asymmetry in the very limited contacts that they were upholding with family members back in their origin countries. While there appeared to be a recurring pattern to contact family and friends when they were in need of financial, moral and emotional support, they were simultaneously feeling ashamed of doing so. For many of my interviewees, they felt a moral imperative as the one who left (and became a successful migrant) to be the driving force behind family support and not the other way round. They felt they had let their families down by not being able to assist them financially and instead had to beg them for continuing support. This situation also deprived the migrants of any meaningful social role within their extended family networks because they could not fulfil any social obligations towards their family members, such as participating in family rituals, even if only virtually, or by sending economic contributions.
In order to compensate for this loss of identification with their families and communities, some of my respondents attempted to build international networks with other migrants who had successfully travelled to Europe. Others invested time and effort in establishing contacts to expatriate personnel from western NGOs, journalists or human rights activists in Morocco. It appeared that by investing in transnational social ties with people residing in the ‘developed’ world, they were projecting themselves towards a future they wished for. However, they were often aware of the fragile basis of trust upon which these practices were built, as opposed to the strong emotional foundations of family and kinship ties.
For the migrants I interviewed, the dysfunctional transnational relations with families and friends back home reinforced migrants’ perception of their lives as standing still. This feeling can have a paralysing effect on migrants. It inhibits them from maintaining contact with a past life they no longer feel connected to, and simultaneously prevents them from investing themselves in a hopeful future. They are no longer living in two places; instead, they appear to be neither here or there, living an existential limbo, where time loses its meaning.
The case of the young migrants in Morocco makes us recognise that migrants’ experience of ‘home’ and ‘identity’ is, to a large extent, shaped by the status they are ascribed to in the host and home countries, their structural position within societal structures and their relation to time. Migration policies are an important factor in how migrants are able to be transnationally active or not, because they regulate migrants’ possibilities to move legally between their countries of origin and destination, and shape the opportunities they have to invest their economic, cultural or social resources in maintaining contact (both physical and virtual) with family and friends in different places. Therefore, an important factor in the assessment of the usefulness of migration policies for advancing dignified living conditions should involve the extent to which they are curtailing or enabling migrants to lead transnational lives.
Blog post by Inka Stock, Bielefeld University, Germany
Read the Identities article:
Stock, Inka. Transnational social fields in forced immobility: relations of young Sub-Saharan African migrants in Morocco with their families and friends. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2015.1024123
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