E.g., 09/30/2023
E.g., 09/30/2023
Straddling Two Worlds: Highly Skilled Migrants from Senegambia and Switzerland

Straddling Two Worlds: Highly Skilled Migrants from Senegambia and Switzerland

AfricanSwitzerland Thomas8047 Flickr

More than 70,000 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa lived in Switzerland in 2015. (Photo: Thomas8047/Flickr)

While discussions of African migration often focus on those escaping war, poverty, or political instability in Africa to find a better life in Europe, migration channels that include highly skilled migrants flow in both directions. Even as there has been significant research into the social, political, and economic dimensions of highly skilled migration, understanding of the individual life experiences and livelihoods of these immigrants remains limited. This holds true for highly skilled migrants from Senegambia (the West African region comprised of Senegal and The Gambia) in Switzerland—a newly popular destination for highly educated immigrants in fields such as accounting, engineering, and the sciences—as well as Swiss migrants in Senegambia. Personal accounts of these immigrants demonstrate numerous similarities between the experiences and activities of the two groups, while also revealing a few key differences.

This article, based on a study taking place at the Centre for African Studies and the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and European Ethnology at the University of Basel in Switzerland, offers a brief summary of the experiences and activities articulated by skilled migrants from Senegambia and Switzerland. It offers an overview of migration trends, discusses common dialogues and perceived stereotypes surrounding both populations, and examines transnational activities (i.e., remittances and citizenship) as an example of similarities and contrasts between these groups.

In this study, highly skilled immigrants are defined as individuals with a tertiary degree in any discipline and work in various occupations. Researchers interviewed 21 respondents in total—11 from Senegambia and ten from Switzerland—encompassing engineers, accountants, researchers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and diplomats. Respondents were recruited via professional networking circles, such as InterNations and LinkedIn. Through the interviews, participants comprehensively described their own personal and professional experiences as well as their transnational activities. Many of the interviews with Senegambian migrants were conducted in the Wolof language. Furthermore, in order to review each migrant’s personal observations regarding their professional and personal lives, an ethnographic analysis was carried out for both populations, in each host country.

Motivations to Migrate

Although the professional trajectories of skilled Senegambian and Swiss migrants occur against the backdrop of divergent sociopolitical contexts, both groups serve as useful case studies to explore how migration structurally binds the developed North and the global South.

Migrants from Senegambia in Switzerland

Immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa have long represented one of the largest groups of newcomers to enter Europe, many coming with college degrees and professional credentials. This migration has been driven by a mix of factors that often trace their roots to colonialism, among them poverty, political instability, poor infrastructure, limited job opportunities, and weak health-care systems present in many regions of sub-Saharan Africa. Faced with these challenges, highly skilled individuals from Senegambia often seek opportunities abroad, perpetuating the brain drain that plagues these countries. By 2010, nearly 17.7 percent of individuals with a college degree in Senegal had left the country to work abroad—a trend particularly pronounced in the medical field.

Europe, particularly Southern and Western Europe, is the most popular destination for migrants from Senegambia, hosting more than 316,000 migrants in 2015, according to UN Population Division data. Although postcolonial and linguistic ties play a significant role in the choice of destinations—France for migrants from Senegal, and the United Kingdom for those from The Gambia, for example—geographic proximity remains a significant influence. Hence, France, Italy, and Spain are home to the overwhelming majority of migrants from Senegambia.

While Switzerland remains much less popular than other destinations in Europe, over the past few years, it has attracted a growing number of highly skilled migrants from around the world. A dramatic increase in expenditure on research and development beginning in the 1990s created more job opportunities. Regulations were also loosened, making it easier for highly qualified migrants to come to Switzerland. It has since become one of the top ten Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development destination countries for skilled migrants.

In 2015, more than 70,000 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa resided in Switzerland, about 2,000 of whom were from Senegambia, according to the Swiss Federal Statistical Office. With diverse career opportunities available (e.g., business, finance, diplomacy, and health and pharmaceuticals), college-educated immigrants from Senegambia live and work across the country, with concentrations in Geneva, Lausanne, and Zurich.

Migrants from Switzerland in Senegambia

During the 1980s, migration from industrialized countries in the North to developing countries in the South began to increase. While Switzerland is a small and prosperous country, it holds a longstanding tradition of emigration. In 2016, more than 10 percent of Swiss citizens lived abroad, the vast majority in Europe.

Approximately 50,000 international migrants resided in Senegal in 2015, with 10 percent from European countries including France, Germany, and Switzerland, according to UN data. Despite the socioeconomic challenges and poverty within the region, its favorable geographic location has resulted in a large concentration of transnational companies, nongovernmental organizations, and financial and research institutions that attract highly skilled migrants from the North.

Experiences, Visibility, and Stereotypes

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Although the Senegambian and Swiss communities are small in their respective host countries, their race and religious practices create distinctive and visible contrasts (more than 90 percent of Senegambian migrants are Muslim). Culture, religion, race, and language are features that greatly influence stereotyping or acceptance within a society. These perceptions are often influenced by the media and discourses about specific groups of migrants, which can regulate positive or negative views of immigrants overall and in turn affect migrant experiences. Although Senegambian and Swiss migrants both stand out significantly within their host countries, responses and reactions toward them differ greatly, with some small similarities as well.

Media depictions of African and European migrants are vastly different, for example. Contemporary representations in European media of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are overwhelmingly negative. The media commonly portrays these individuals as illegally present, with minimal professional skills and a purported propensity to commit crimes. Their individual circumstances are overshadowed by discussions about low-skilled workers, illegal immigration, refugees and asylum seekers, hazardous journeys across the Mediterranean, and border control. In sharp contrast, skilled migrants from Europe residing in Africa are often portrayed in European media as nonthreatening, legally residing businessmen, and are often referred to as elites and “expats” who bring the benefits of expertise and knowledge. In addition, politicians and researchers also fuel misconstrued images of African migration.

It is obvious that some groups benefit from their predefined status in society, while others face significant challenges as a result of these negative discourses and attitudes from the media, public, and policymakers.

During the in-depth interviews conducted by University of Basel researchers, these issues became apparent. For instance, one respondent named Lamin, a 45-year-old accountant from The Gambia, commented on the impact of society’s misperceptions:

“I hardly identify myself with the way that [the] media or the way people portray African migrants. I mean seriously, it’s like we are all illegal criminals or refugees. These images on boats, with people coming from the back way [illegally]. I, like many others, came on a plane. Sometimes people assume I am just here to cause trouble and [they] can be very hostile, and other times people say, ‘Oh not you, [you] are a hard-working migrant, you are different.’ I think, ‘Different from what, your actuality of what an African migrant in Switzerland is?’”

Lamin’s narrative is just one example illustrating the thoughts surveyed Senegambians expressed about the portrayal of African migrants in Europe. The constant prejudice and misunderstandings were named as one of the greatest challenges Senegambian migrants face in Switzerland. For example, Fatima, a 36-year-old Gambian woman who works as a project manager for an international organization in Switzerland, stated: “This [is an] environment of mistrust as well, because (…) no matter where you live in Switzerland, you always have that conversation where you have to prove yourself.” While Fatima, Lamin, and other respondents said they did not face direct negative treatment, the hostile portrayal by the media and community stereotyping made them feel that they constantly had to prove themselves within the society.

In contrast Paul, a 43-year-old Swiss man who works for a German company in Senegal, stated:

They look at you and they are like ‘OK, you know there is a rich European guy coming across, he has everything … he has no difficulties.’”

Echoed Lena, a 54-year-old Swiss woman who works as a regional manager for a medical research institute in The Gambia: “People always think I am rich over here and that everything is just handed to me so easily because I am white and from Europe.”

Although Lena and Paul expressed a more positive narrative about how they were perceived in Senegambia, antagonism toward Swiss migrants by locals in Senegambia was also revealed during the interviews. Paul noted:

“A lot of times people think we are here to just lavish and just enjoy life, which in return causes hostility. I would expect a neutral way to treat me, you know without any prejudices, which is kind of wishful thinking maybe, but over here it’s like you are a threat, especially if you are a white man from Europe.”

Paul’s account illustrates that skilled migrants from the North in the developing world may themselves face hostility based on stereotypes rather than their lived realities. Immigrants from both Switzerland and Senegambia often confront stereotypes that may invoke tension or hostility: exclusion (African migrants) and threat (Swiss migrants), which shows how both negative and positive stereotypes can work against individuals.

Role of Experiences in Transnational Activities

Another important topic raised during the interviews was the contrast in personal values and activities between Swiss and Senegambian migrants. While the contrasting experiences of these groups in areas such as remittances and citizenship illustrated significant divergence, they also revealed that various elements were shared by both groups, even if they were expressed in different ways and for different reasons.


The Senegambia region has one of the highest rates of remittance receipt in Africa. International remittances accounted for 10.3 percent of Senegal’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2014, the 24th highest in the world. In contrast, migrants from the North often do not send remittances home: None of the Swiss respondents said they remitted to family in Switzerland. This contrast may have to do with socioeconomic class, background, and cultural norms, including differing family obligations. On remittances, Stefan, a 39-year-old Swiss migrant in Senegal, stated:

I mean, you know, it’s strange. You earn your money for yourself, that’s the concept we learn back home, you earn for yourself. I mean, if someone is in real difficulties, you can [loan] them some money but, I don’t think it is a typical Swiss thing to just give family members money on a constant basis. But, I have [loaned] people money, if they are in difficulties.”

Several elements play a role in creating this contrast between the remittance practices (or lack thereof) of Senegambian and Swiss migrants. One question to consider is what the act of remitting means to migrants themselves, apart from economic discourse surrounding remittances. Through their remittance practices, migrants from Senegambia uphold strong ties as well as a valued status within their families. Lamin, the Senegambian accountant in Switzerland, stated:

“Of course, I send money home to my family all the time. That is our duty; that is what we are supposed to do. It’s in our culture. Everyone I know does it. In fact, I used to give my family money before I left Gambia, so this is nothing new to me. I would still do it if I lived in Gambia today. However, living in Switzerland provides me with the opportunity to do so much more for everyone back home.”

The role of remittances, which support the livelihoods of many in the migrant’s origin country, in the decision to migrate is a well-studied phenomenon. Several of the participants indicated that their religion also played a role in their remittance activities. Lamin continued: “Charity is an important aspect in our religion [Islam]. We are supposed to help people, in any way that we can [njon lolo lenj ham].”

Another factor that should be considered is gender. Although the female respondents indicated that they send remittances, it appeared to be less of an obligation for them to regularly do so than for Senegambian men. This could result from cultural attitudes in Senegambia surrounding the role of men as family providers, who are expected to contribute more to the economic stability of family.

Citizenship, Belonging, and Identity  

Although Senegambian and Swiss migrants differed greatly in their attitudes about remittances, citizenship and identity were areas of sizeable similarity. The interviews revealed that for Senegambian immigrants, the acquisition of citizenship or permanent residence in Switzerland provides a sense of long-term security. As explained by many Senegambian migrants, gaining citizenship or long-term residence afforded an opportunity to come and go freely, even if they decide to return home. The Senegambian respondents also indicated that they still consider themselves citizens of their country of origin, regardless of their status in their host country; most maintain cultural ties and identify with their country of birth, even after obtaining legal residence in Switzerland. Fatou, a Senegalese migrant who also holds Swiss citizenship, explained: “I am keeping my Senegalese citizenship [because] I am trying to hold on to an identity which is slowly disappearing. Not because I would like it to, [but] because I have traveled so much and that [previous identity is] further [from] the foundation [of] the person I am today.

Interestingly, the Swiss respondents provided parallel reasons for retaining their Swiss citizenship. Peter, a 46-year-old Swiss immigrant in Senegambia, stated: “I wouldn’t leave my nationality. ... The Swiss passport is great due to the simple reason that I can travel freely to a lot of places, wherever I want to. You know, I can also take advantages back home if needed. Plus, I consider myself 100 percent Swiss.

Both groups of respondents expressed their desire to acquire or retain Swiss citizenship or residence due to the security it provides. They also indicated a desire to retain their original citizenship, in order to return to their country of origin, if they so choose. Additionally, both migrant groups expressed interest in maintaining Swiss citizenship or permanent residence for the same reason: the ability to travel with no restrictions. Swiss nationals are eligible for far more visa-free and flexible travel and mobility within Europe, while Senegambians often need visas—and experience greater scrutiny of whether they will overstay. Similarly, the Swiss migrants who sought permanent residence in Senegal or The Gambia typically had a partner or family in the country and, therefore, also sought security to ensure they would be able to remain with their families, with no limitations or restrictions. Interestingly, both groups of respondents explained that their personal experiences reshaped their views of citizenship.

These narratives illustrate that the relationship between belonging and citizenship is complex and multilayered. Overall, respondent decisions about residence were not strictly connected to territorial identity, but were also influenced by lifestyle preferences and economic factors. Consequently, the belief that migrants choose to live in a new country to establish a sense of security raises debates on who “belongs” and whether they emigrated solely to obtain special privileges afforded to citizens of that country.

Gaining New Insights through Narratives

The use of ethnographic methods and personal narratives can grant insight into the experiences of migrants, and permit greater and more nuanced understanding of perspectives on mobility. As is the case of Senegambian and Swiss migrants, examining the parallel and contrasting experiences between migrants from the North and South offers a unique perspective on the backgrounds, cultures, and frameworks of contrasting societies. This research aims to shed light on the basic human reasons behind the strategies, family ties, value systems, and practices of migrants, and how these characteristics and motivations are reflected in their behavior.

Migration research would benefit from further analysis of the behavior of individual migrants, with attention to their personality, character, and values. Most importantly, a migrant’s past can help to make sense of his or her present. This is particularly true if common characteristics are widely shared within a specific group. This individualized approach might provide researchers a more complete and authentic understanding of migrant practices and the factors that shape migrant decision-making in today’s globalized world.

Editor's Note: This article is based on research conducted for a PhD project at the University of Basel in Switzerland, funded by the Swiss National Fund. To read more about the study, click here.


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