E.g., 09/23/2023
E.g., 09/23/2023
Mali: Seeking Opportunity Abroad

Mali: Seeking Opportunity Abroad

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One of West Africa's landlocked, drought-prone countries south of the Sahara desert is Mali, a nation with a long history of migrations, dating from the 4th century. In this region the salient feature of poverty is its cyclical and conditional nature. Though poverty is chronic, there are better and worse years, depending on how successful the family is in coping with the irregularities of weather, land productivity, prices, and the fluctuations in labor supply and cost. Absent is a lasting solution to the irregularity and cyclical downfalls.

Migration is an apt response to the cyclical swings of poverty in this region. Migrants leave and work elsewhere during the dry season, returning for the rainy season or when times improve. In the meantime, they send money to their families in Mali to close the production-consumption gap. This migration response to cyclical downswings and seasonal food and cash shortages has been a part of the region's way of life for at least the last two centuries. It is especially the men of this region who have gone to other countries or parts of the region to earn money.

Well before the arrival of the French in the 19th century, Malians were frequent migrants, responding to the pressures of drought, war between competing leaders, and pressures on resources. The economic and political structure of French West Africa during the colonial period of 1898-1960 brought further pressures for migration. Plantation agriculture heightened the demand for labor, and the colonial administrators effectively pushed workers to the plantations by imposition of a "head tax" that could often be paid only with earnings from labor migrations. When Malians began serving under the French in wars, they were introduced to France, and particularly after World War II, many former soldiers and a long line of subsequent migrants headed for France to work in its automobile factories and to serve the growing French urban populations.

Thus, even during the colonial period, there was enormous variability in the types of migration, in terms of both space and time. These forms included international quasi-permanent migration to France, international circular migration to the peanut plantations of the Senegambia and cotton and cocoa plantations of Ivory Coast; circular domestic migration to the cities (particularly during the dry season); seasonal migrations with herds seeking greener grass; permanent relocation by groups of families establishing a new village; and labor migration to the country's gold mines. After independence, all these forms of migration continued to flourish, with the addition of even more variety in the African migrations, which ranged even farther to encompass Gabon and central African nations. While official counts of migrants are notoriously inaccurate and incomplete, in 1991, there were almost four million Malians known to be residing in other countries. Migrations in the 1990s continued at a high level, though increasingly diversified, with growing numbers to North America, including the United States.

Migration Factors

Today, Mali continues to be buffeted by internal and external forces that propel – or compel - migration. Underpinning most migrations worldwide are economic factors, and there is no doubt that Mali continues to have very strong economic push factors, both for leaving the country to search for work and opportunities elsewhere, and for seeking out alternative economic niches within the Malian economy. Mali's per capita gross national product (GNP) is $215, at the bottom of almost any comparative ranking (158 out of 172 ranked by the World Bank). Most of the population (91 percent) earn less than $2 per day and 73 percent bring in less than $1 per day. Income is inequitably distributed, with over half the income going to the richest 20 percent.

The majority of the population (80 percent) is dependent on the primary or agricultural sector, but it contributes only half (46 percent) of GNP. Most of the crops are rain-fed, leaving the yields dependent on the variation in rainfall and ability of farmers to replenish soil losses from wind erosion. Malian farmers all over cite the lack of rain as one of the major barriers to adequate production levels. Others say that production is low because they do not have modern equipment, such as improved ploughs. Finally, when they are able to sell produce, the inadequate road system reduces market returns. Only one-fourth of all roads in Mali are paved or all-weather. In annual rankings of cereal-producing nations, Mali repeatedly ranks near the bottom for productivity, with an average of 0.7 tons/hectare for millet/sorghum and 1.6 tons/hectare for rice. In some years, Mali is self-sufficient in grains, but in bad years and frequently in the more arid regions, production does not even cover basic family needs. The subsistence nature of the agricultural system is reflected in the low level of participation in the market economy. One survey showed that half of the families sold none of their products in the market. Just over one-third of the families sold vegetables, millet, or livestock directly to other villagers, and only nine percent traveled to the regional market to sell their produce.

Mali's industry contributes only 15 percent of GNP and is limited to food processing, construction, and phosphate and gold mining. Most of the firms (64 percent) are in Bamako, and the industrial sector is dominated by bakeries. The only bright light in industry is gold mining, which currently contributes 15 percent to the country's export receipts. The balance of the economy is made up of an array of services, many from small or family-based enterprises.

Work Opportunities and Migration

People looking for work have few choices, mainly in agriculture or services. Most find work in and around their village or town, at least for part of the year. One in five, however, permanently migrate in pursuit of work or a more stable livelihood. The 1992-1993 National Migration Survey, conducted jointly by the National Statistics Office and the Sahel Institute's Center for Population Studies and Research, shows that 17 percent of those residing in Mali have migrated and live in a district other than their birthplace. The survey also shows that in addition to these permanent migrations, another 18 percent have moved for some time to another district.

When people begin looking for work elsewhere, they find opportunities in varied areas. While livestock accounts for 30 percent of all exports, there is little job potential associated with raising livestock. Within the agricultural sector, the main job opportunities are in cotton, the rice crops along the irrigated areas along the Niger River, and seasonal labor chores in the subsistence grain sector. For those with few skills and little education, the prime migration destinations within Mali are the cotton-growing region of Sikasso and the rice-growing regions in Segou, Mopti, and Gao. While some seasonal migrants go to the irrigated fields to work the harvest, the vast majority of those working in agriculture move short distances to nearby towns or larger villages, seeking odd jobs during the dry or "dead" period.

The 1992-1993 National Migration Survey shows that while 91 percent of the rural population was living in the same district as their birth, 47 percent of all rural households included at least one member who had migrated in or out. In a pattern repeated again and again throughout Mali, a young man may go each year to the same village to work making bricks or hauling wood, only breaking away from this pattern when an opportunity opens up for something more stable, for example, with an uncle in a nearby town. For many migrants, a lifetime can be made up of alternating between periods spent working one's own land and off-season periods spent looking for work somewhere not too far away. Good harvests mean shorter periods away, while bad harvests mean more family members away for longer periods of time.

The following describes a typical "sojourner" pattern of seasonal migration:

I left with three of my friends. We paid for our trip. It cost 400 francs. We went to the Mali-Senegal border at Kidira. There I walked up and down the village asking for work. Finally, I found the man who took me in. He was a veterinarian who hired me to transport goods with his cart. We made a contract. I hauled for him and gave him the receipts. Each month he paid me 2,000 francs (CFA) in addition to my lodging. The first year, I stayed only two months because I got homesick for my family. I came home with 1,000 francs for my father, 1,000 francs for my mother, and the rest I contributed to buy food and ingredients for the family's condiments. (Findley et al., IM article)

This migrant returned to the same village to do the same work for three years, by which time he had earned enough money to buy his own cart and donkey. In subsequent years, he went to the Mauritanian border to be a self-employed hauler.

Services are the other major employment option for Malian migrants, and particularly for women. Service jobs are concentrated in the larger towns and cities, and especially the largest cities of Bamako and Segou. Very little of the service sector is government (five percent) or transportation (14 percent), leaving the balance in commercial, retail, and personal services. Not surprisingly, then, migration surveys show that the bulk of migrants in the towns are found in these activities. In Bamako, the capital of Mali, 71 percent of male migrants found work of some kind within the first year after their arrival, and 21 percent of female migrants. One in 10 male migrants started as piece-workers or apprentices, and the balance were self-employed in the informal sector or wage workers in the formal sector. Female migrants were most likely to end up self-employed in the informal sector (e.g., as vendors or service providers) or wage workers in the formal sector. The 1992-1993 survey found that one-third of the recent migrants had paying jobs, such as domestic service provider or gardener, and one-fourth were self-employed, often in small-scale commercial trade or transportation services. Another quarter worked in family enterprises, twice the proportion among non-migrants.

Migrants and Destinations

The 1992-1993 survey found 1,050,638 lifetime migrants, accounting for 17 percent of the 1993 population over age five. One-third of them were in Bamako. This was consistent for both men and women. The probability of being a migrant was lower in the more isolated northern districts (only seven percent in Timbuctou and Mopti), and much higher in Bamako (48 percent) and urban areas (40 percent). By age 25, both men and women average at least one migration to another district, but by age 35 most men had moved again, raising their average for age 35-39 to 1.9 migrations. The following graph shows the destinations and origins for migrants over age 15. The majority of migrants move within Mali. The most common migration destinations are Bamako and Segou, and these are also the dominant origins for migrants. About twice as many migrants leave Mali as arrive from other nations, and by far the majority of those leaving Mali go to neighboring countries in the Sahel (Senegal, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania).

Given the limited internal job prospects for Malian migrants, each year thousands pursue opportunities outside Mali. The number living outside Mali in 2000 is not precisely known, but if the pace of emigration throughout the 1990s continued at least at the level observed in the late 1980s, namely 48,000 to 54,000 per year, it is likely that in 2000 there were in the vicinity of 4,400,000 Malians living in other countries. This represents one emigrant for every 2.7 residents in Mali, which had an estimated population of 12 million in 2002. The most common destinations at that time were Ivory Coast, Senegal, France, the United States, Libya, and a handful of other Central African and European nations. Except for seasonal migrations to Senegal or Ivory Coast, the typical pattern for an international migrant has been for young men to depart for a period of three to seven years, returning with savings to marry. Depending on the work and living situation in the host country, the migrant would return for another period of time, earning money to send home to his family.

This is how an elder views migration to France:

For us, all men go out to work and experience life. It is our tradition. Migration is a good thing, because it is for the family. It is bad to go and forget the family left behind here. We live by emigration, because it hardly rains here. Without the remittances from migrants we would not have anything to eat. We depend on God and on our children who went to France. During the drought, we sent them letters explaining our difficult situation, and usually they were able to send money to satisfy our needs, if they didn't send millet, rice, and peanuts directly. If it weren't for the difficulties of life or the droughts, we would prefer to stay here with our family and work with them. But with all the difficulties we are obliged to migrate. (Findley et al., IM article)

Economic and climatic forces have altered migration prospects for Malian migrants throughout the 1990s. The 1990s saw continued fluctuations in rainfall, leading to food deficits and cotton crop failures in several years. The 50 percent devaluation of the West African franc (CFA) in 1994 sent the economy into a tailspin, sharply increasing the cost of living and reducing consumer demand. As part of structural adjustment measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund, the government reined in the growth of the government sector. University graduates could no longer expect a guaranteed government job upon graduation. These combined forces have pushed urban unemployment rates up to 70 percent of the youth, and 17 percent overall. While economic growth started to pick up in the early 2000s, this growth does not generate enough jobs for the thousands of new labor force entrants each year, even if they come to Bamako or Segou.

Recognizing the economic benefits to families of migration to Bamako and other cities, the government of Mali has a laissez-faire policy toward internal migration. While the government does issue identity cards, these are not used to control residence. However, access to certain benefits (schooling and health services) can be restricted to local residents, specifically for community health services supported by the community. In this case, non-residents are tracked separately and asked to pay additional fees.

African Conflicts Strike Migration

Mali is an active member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Since 1978, ECOWAS has established conventions allowing free movement of people and goods between member states. In addition, Mali has bilateral agreements allowing Malian migrants to move back and forth between Mali and its neighbors Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger, and Guinea.

Despite these accords, political conflict and pressures within or next to Mali's borders have had a profound effect on the options for migrants. In the early 1990s, there were prolonged conflicts throughout the Sahel. Unrest in Senegal, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Ivory Coast brought an estimated 18,000 refugees to Mali by 1996. These were assisted in being lodged temporarily by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and with the conclusion of the peace accord in 1995, many were repatriated.

In Mali itself, between 1990 and 1995 there was fighting over the allocation of political and economic rights between the northern Tuareg/Tamashek peoples and the settled, southern peoples in the Niger Delta. Until a peace accord was signed in 1995, 200,000 people in Mali fled the conflict zones of the north for the relative calm of the southern districts, and another 55,000 fled the country as refugees. This had a ripple effect on the demand for food and work, which continued to stress the subsistence economy into the late 1990s.

The most serious threat to Malian migrants today comes from its southern neighbor, Ivory Coast. Since 1993, internal conflict and the rise of nationalism in Ivory Coast has had a devastating impact on Mali. Ivory Coast had been one of Mali's leading trade partners, and with the sharp reduction of commerce during the conflict, Mali's economy has suffered terribly. The intensification of Ivorian nationalist sympathies, expressed in part as xenophobia and resentment of perceived Malian domination of certain labor market niches, has affected the lives of the thousands of Malian migrants in Ivory Coast. The right to own land was taken away from those not of "pure" Ivoirian parentage, and in 1998 thousands of Malians and Burkinabe were expelled from their farms in Ivory Coast. Contrary to earlier conventions allowing free movement between West African states, immigrants can be denied identity cards. Tens of thousands of migrants have fled back from Ivory Coast to Mali and neighboring Burkina Faso. Conflicts in Ivory Coast between the Muslims of the north and the Christians of the south have added to the anti-immigrant bias, because Malians are largely Muslim.

In September 2002, violence between Ivoirian groups shut down the major trade routes between Mali and Burkina Faso and Abidjan, the major port city of Ivory Coast. Pressure against migrants continued to rise in Ivory Coast, and in November 2003 clashes broke out between the Bete tribe and Malian and Burkinabe immigrants in the south of the country. International efforts to broker a peace between the government and rebels have thus far been unsuccessful. While civil war continues in Ivory Coast, it is not a viable destination for new Malian migrants. In fact, it has become unsafe for Ivoirians themselves, and Mali now finds it is home to about 2,000 refugees fleeing the conflict.

Narrower Paths to Europe

Stress on the Malian migration system has also come from France. During the 1990s, France tightened its immigration regulations, making it harder and harder for Malians to find work and live there. In 1996, the pressure on Malians was turned up, and France began deporting Malians and other Sahelians by the planeload. In March 1996, 400 immigrants from Mali, Senegal, and Mauritania began a week-long sit-in at a church in Paris to demand French residency permits. After four tense days, they were evicted despite assurances from the prime minister to the contrary. The immigrants (still 300 strong) next moved to a nearby gymnasium, and the police again removed them. Days later, 67 immigrants appeared in court, seeking asylum, and most had their applications denied. At the end of March 1996, 50 of the asylum seekers were returned to Mali. The cycle of protests, police removals (some violent, as in August 1996), and deportations continued in August and September of 1996. In response, the French government established a policy of "assisted returns" designed to prevent Malians from being deported empty-handed. When "voluntarily" returning to Mali, each Malian can receive $3,600 towards opening a business. A survey of participants shows that 80 percent are still in business two years later.

While this program softened the blow of deportation for Malians, it did not address the issue of permanent residence status, as requested by the demonstrators. Finally, in 2000, a Mali-France Consultation Agreement on Migration was established. This agreement calls for annual meetings of government ministers to deal with the integration of Malians who want to remain in France, co-management of migration flows, and cooperative development. In reality, the agreement has had little impact on migration or on the Malian government's efforts to slow emigration. Three years after the agreement was established, the Malian government has refused to crack down on people traffickers, because this would curtail the millions of dollars sent by emigrants each year. The French government estimates that in 2003 there were 120,000 Malians in France, of whom 60 percent are estimated to have arrived illegally. On any given workday, one can find young men and women lined up in front of the French and American embassies. Prominent among them are university graduates who now can find no work. Like many before them, they say they do not have any real prospects for the future, and that it is better to go to Europe in search of a better life.

However, with the slump of the European economy and greater pressure from the unemployed throughout Europe, Malians have increasingly turned to the United States. This trend was accelerated by two changes to U.S. immigration policy: the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) and the Diversity Visa Program. The 1986 act enabled thousands of Africans living in the United States to become permanent residents, and the diversity program allowed 50,000 African winners of the visa lottery to come to the United States. Like other "new" African immigrants in the United States, Malians are concentrated in a few metropolitan areas: New York City, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Chicago, and Baltimore. Like their compatriots in France, they also remit large sums to Mali. According to Mali's President Amadou Toumani Toure, "Our countrymen contribute decisively to the development of their country. Every year they send the equivalent of the total development aid that Mali receives from France." The government's banking reforms have made it easier to transfer money from foreign banks and Bamako is now the home of Western Union and a number of other money-transfer agencies.

Challenges Ahead

Migration is the Malians' age-old solution to their difficult situation. With the additional pressures of the conflicts on their borders, the impetus to go farther to Europe and the U.S. is likely to continue to increase. Such pressure is likely to come both from individual families benefiting from these moves, and from the government, which sees the enormous value added from the remittances sent back by these faraway Malians.

In the coming years, it will be a challenge for Mali's government to continue to balance the significant stakes it holds in these migrations against pressure from foreign governments, both near and far, to restrict emigration. The governments of many of these receiving countries aim to restrict immigration and cut the access of Malians to the very economic resources that lead them to sacrifice life in their homeland by migrating.


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