Eighty-year-old Amadou Keita spent his working life as a schoolteacher trying to understand and influence young people. Knowing them well, he doubts efforts to stop the tens of thousands of youths who migrate abroad every year will ever work.
"We Malians have been travelers since the dawn of time," he said. “Some go seeking knowledge, others to taste adventure and still others to make their fortunes. Before Christopher Columbus discovered America, a young Manding king named Aboubakri II left to discover the world. He never returned.”
Today, more Malians are migrating than ever before. Four million, or over a third of the country's 11.7 million people, are currently located in other countries, according to Mali's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
They join thousands of other West Africans in Europe or elsewhere seeking to escape poverty and joblessness. From abroad, they send money back home and later return with new social status and some capital to invest. The fruits of migration are mythologised through song, the Internet and word of mouth, encouraging more young people to follow.
Ingrained in culture
Migration expert Sally Findley dates Malian migration back to the 4th Century. And she says that for at least the last two centuries rural Malians have been leaving home during the dry season and returning for the rainy season or when life improves.
“Migration is an apt response to the cyclical swings of poverty in this region,” wrote Findley, a professor of population and family health at New York's Columbia University, in a 2004 paper published by the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute.
Migration is so deeply ingrained in the culture that in certain regions young people are not allowed to marry until they have gone abroad, according to Malian historian Amadou Sylla. He said that people aged 18-35 from all strata of society deeply believe that only migration will provide a sense of worth, allow them to help their families and eventually enable them to build a life back home.
The sums they remit each year exceed over US $200 million, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That is more than half of all of Mali’s export earnings.
"Malians are making an investment in their country by migrating," said Abdramane Cherif Haidara, chairman of the High Council for Malians Living Abroad. "Some are funding schools in their home regions and health centres.”
On the other hand, migration drains the country of its rural labour force, according to a study from the Kayes region in western Mali. Yet the author of the study, Flore Gubert of the University of Auvergne, also found that remittances constitute the most reliable mechanism to protect agricultural households from food-insecurity.
"Without the financial support of the migrants, the two droughts of 1973 and 1984 would have had much worse consequences," he wrote.
Malians used to only travel to neighbouring African countries but that changed during the colonial era, according to Findley.
“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,” she said.
Today at least a half a million Malians reside across Europe and North America. And while European authorities are stepping up efforts to limit arrivals, Malians are intensifying their efforts to leave home.
One reason is that numerous armed conflicts in Africa over the past decade, including one in northern Mali, have disrupted the old patterns of inter-African migration. The most significant conflict for Malians is in Cote d’Ivoire on Mali's southern border where many migrants once went for work.
With the fighting there partly over citizenship rights, tens of thousands of migrants from Mali and Burkina Faso have been forced out and remittances have plummeted. So has trade because merchants from landlocked Mali are unable to access Cote d’Ivoire’s ports.
“With the additional pressures of the conflicts on their borders, the impetus to go farther to Europe and the US is likely to continue to increase,” Findley said. “The 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."
She wrote that the challenge for Mali’s government is to “continue to balance the significant stakes it holds in these migrations against pressure from foreign governments, both near and far, to restrict emigration".
In the past year, many nations have intensified efforts to stem illegal migration. Hundreds of Malians and other West Africans attempting to illegally enter Spain’s North African enclaves at Ceuta and Melilla from Morocco have been rounded up.
At least a dozen were killed in 2005 while attempting to mount barbed-wire barriers on the border. Some were shot dead; others were crushed to death, according to London-based Amnesty International. Other migrants brought to the Sahara Desert died of dehydration and exhaustion as they walked south, crossing those on their way up north, Amnesty said.
Some illegal migrants take different routes. Police at Bamako airport recently told IRIN of a young man they arrested in September with fake travel documents attempting to board a plane for Europe. He had sold his family property for the 3 million CFA [US $5,820] to pay his travel costs and now had nothing, the police said.
Still others have abandoned the old overland routes north and head west instead to the coasts of Senegal and Mauritania. There they join the tens of thousands of West Africans who each year head into the high seas on fishing canoes for Spain’s Canary Islands.
Untold numbers drown along the way. The Spanish government says it knows of least 500 suspected migrants who have died at sea. The bodies of others can be seen washed up on the African shore.
“Some have also committed suicide," said Mamadou Keita, chairman of a Malian association helping returnees called Return-Work-Dignity. It is an endless traffic going nowhere in which few ever make it to the top where they want to go, he said.
Faced with the compounded risks and dangers he and other Malians are looking for alternatives.
“Many of us wouldn’t go if we could just find jobs at home,” said Alfousseiny Kampo, who tried but failed to make the journey and is a member of Return-Work-Dignity. “We dream of the West only because we think it is our only chance of having a real life.”
In September, the European Union promised to give Mali’s government 426 million euro (US $542 million) over five years “to control the migration flow”. The money, however, was not given to increase border controls but for projects that promote job creation.
“There is not going to be magical solutions," Irene Horejs, the head of the European Commission’s delegation in Bamako, said at the time. "We must attack the fundamental problems of Mali’s poverty and development.”
Few Malian leaders believe the money will change things.
“Immigration is going to continue unless we address fundamental issues like the unequal terms of trade,’’ said Malian Foreign Minister Oumar Hamadoun Dicko, referring to the subsidies that Western governments give their farmers. "African farmers can't compete and are out of world markets." Mali’s cotton farmers have been especially affected.
For Malian sociologist and former minister of culture Aminata Dramane Traore, the West's war on illegal migration is really a war on Mali’s youth, who on the one hand can't work because the West has undermined Mali's agriculture base and who on the other hand can't leave to find work elsewhere. Worse still, she said, "African governments are not speaking out about the biased and superficial polices emanating from Europe because of the promise of new aid."
Unlike traditional forms of seasonal migration, Malians who end up in Europe find it hard to return home. That has been devastating for mothers such as Coumba Diallo.
“My first born, Madou, got up and went on his adventure one bright sunny morning in 2000,” she said. “I have never heard from him again; I don’t even know if he is dead or alive. I want him here again more than all the money in the world.”
Yet the way Moussa Maiga sees the world he has no choice but to leave.
"I got a bachelor’s degree four years ago and was supposed to be the hope of my family,” he said. “I can't just sit here and not do anything.”
Maiga plans to leave for Spain soon, choosing the risk of drowning at sea over dehydrating in the desert.
"I am not afraid,” he said. “Everyone must follow their destiny. If I die or go to prison it is my destiny and nothing can change it."
//This is the fifth in a series of stories this week on illegal migration.//
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions