Published November 30th, 2020

Chapter taken from the brochure by Rahmane Idrissa:

Dialogue in Divergence: The Impact of EU Migration Policyon West African Integration: The Cases of Nigeria, Mali, and Niger, FES

Migration Patterns in Mali

Mali belongs to the group of the three landlocked countries of the Sahel region of West Africa – the two others are Burkina Faso and Niger – where migration, often circular rather than permanent, is a necessity in the context of the modern political economy.

In the early colonial era, low population densities were considered to be the main reason why the agricultural potential of the Niger valley – the river has its longest course within Malian territory – was not exploited to capacity. The French even attempted to import workers from the neighbouring colony of Upper Volta (Burkina Faso) to make up for the dearth of labour in the French Sudan (Mali). However, by the end of the colonial era, population growth had turned labour into a surplus factor relative to capital in the country. In 1960-68, Mali’s first independent government attempted so-called socialist techniques of labour mobilisation that, ideally, would have supervened reliance on capital for the development of a productive economy.

But this largely backfired and led to years of severe food shortages, worsened by the great Sahel drought of the early 1970s. In that period, many farmers in the hardest-hit region of Mali, the arid district of Kayes, found a lifeline as labour migrants in France where the so-called trente glorieuses era of full employment was in full swing, although the majority of them migrated to Côte d’Ivoire, closer to home and where the economy was also booming. The pattern of migration that then developed in Mali is peculiar. Most internal migration in Mali was urban, i.e., from smaller towns to bigger ones, especially Bamako and Segu. Rural migration to urban areas was mostly female, and urban areas were not a springboard for international migration, as often happened elsewhere. Instead, the main destination of Malian (male) rural exodus was a foreign country. Often, this was geographically determined. The main destinations were – and still are – Côte d’Ivoire (440,960), Niger (69,790) and Burkina (68,295) in the country’s immediate vicinity, and Nigeria (133,464) and France (68,786) farther afield (these are IOM figures from 2013 and are very probably under-estimates, especially for Côte d’Ivoire). Most rural migrants from Kayes move to Côte d’Ivoire and those from the Gao district move to Niger.

Since the late 1990s, Mali has become a country of both transit and origin for trans-Saharan and trans-Mediterranean migration to Europe. Flows towards Europe tapered off due to Libya’s role (under Gaddafi ) as a bulwark of the European continent and a provider of jobs to sub-Saharan migrants in the late 2000s. But they were revived after Gaddafi’s fall and Libya’s descent into chaos in 2012. These fresh flows initially followed the Niger-Libya-Italy route. But with the crackdown on irregular migration in Niger, the ancient route through the Sahara to Morocco and Spain has come back to life. In early assessments for 2018, Malians account for 12% of registered arrivals in Spain, totalling 3227 persons according to IOM.

Migration: a short history of the situation to date

In Mali, as elsewhere, emigration is the result of the simple equation of surplus labour and scarce capital. In such a context, but perhaps even more so than in other parts of West Africa, the state itself was the key development asset. In the 1990s, however, its developmental capacities were dismantled under the aegis of the Bretton Woods institution and the Washington Consensus to make way for the market. Not coincidentally, it is during that period that irregular migration flows towards Europe started for good.

Surplus labour in Mali stemmed from population growth. Although Mali’s population is comparatively small – standing at about 18 million in 2018 – it is much bigger than in past centuries, when labour was so scarce that slavery was an important form of (coerced) labour mobilisation, and long-distance trade was the only viable means of capital accumulation. Colonialism was in fact a system of capital extraction rather than of capital formation, and in particular, it did not form the basis for industry in the country. From the outset – in the 1960s – Malian political economy was therefore characterised by the predominance of non-productive capital (merchant capital), although this was connected to the production of so-called tropical products, i.e., groundnuts and cotton. These are commodities with volatile prices on the world market, and they were inherently fragile development assets.


A study conducted in the early 1990s found a slight decline in emigration in the late 1980s, but this was against a background where close to a million Malians were involved in forms of circular migration in neighbouring countries. For instance, in 1993, 10.5% of Mali’s total population – a staggering 735,000 people – was residing in Côte d’Ivoire. This considerably reduced pressure on Mali’s faltering economic structure while also transferring wealth through remittances and diaspora investments (mostly informal or small-scale).The economic crisis that gripped much of the region in the 1990s rapidly put paid to this equilibrium. Structural adjustment compelled countries to renounce the concept of the state as a development asset and to reduce its capacities– which were deemed wasteful and uneconomical – so that they could repay the debt they had incurred in their earlier efforts to finance development.

Given the importance of the state in the regional economies, its rapid and extensive retrenchment led to social crisis everywhere, including in Côte d’Ivoire. This country, the biggest recipient of Malian migration, gradually moved from social to political crisis, especially as the leader who had ruled it since independence, and who had built the Ivoirian economic model on the basis of openness to immigration, died in 1993. The new leaders stoked xenophobia against Sahelian migrants in order to score points in the political struggles that ensued, causing tens of thousands of harassed Malians to leave the country. Even those who chose to remain were later forced to flee as Côte d’Ivoire eventually descended into a full-blown civil war in the early 2000s.

Meanwhile, the economic position of Mali was also deteriorating. The fiscal crisis was racking the state, which was compelled to accept structural adjustment, terminating thousands of jobs and drastically scaling down its administrative capacities, including those in social sectors. The country had just adopted a democratic constitution – the first in its history – in 1992, but the violence of the economic reforms unleashed waves of social protest movements on the fledgling regime. In April 1993, the National Assembly was set on fire, as well as the residence of the newly elected head of state, and crowds threatened to attack the embassies of donor countries, seen to be supporting the reforms. To make things worse, in 1994, the French Treasury and the West African States’ Central Bank slashed in half the value of the common currency CFA Franc. Mali had acceded to the currency about a decade before at the cost of significantly reducing the pay rates of salaried personnel. Now, wage incomes were virtually ground to dust.It is in this context that Malians, cut off from their major traditional destination – Côte d’Ivoire – and facing acute social and economic crisis at home, started to look in new directions. This included other parts of Africa, and also Europe.

The EU-Mali policy dialogue: amenable state, adverse civil society

The Malian state has long recognised the importance of emigration in the country. It is the only West African country to have a ministry dedicated to its diaspora, the Ministry of Malians Abroad, created in 2004. In the post-structural adjustment era, migration had come to be considered a development asset, albeit one that was perceived to be lacking a proper governance structure.

In 2018, Mali was ranked tenth among Sub-Saharan African countries in terms of remittances from abroad, with about 1 bn. USD in officially recorded receipts according to the World Bank. However, until 2015, Mali did not have a national migration policy. Just as Nigeria, it relied on largely outdated immigration laws, regional integration pacts (ECOWAS and WAEMU), the AU migration policy framework, and international conventions as its general policy. The Ministry of Malians Abroad – which also has ‘African integration’ within its remit – offered a compact to the Malian diaspora in the name of the state. The ministry expects the diaspora to be involved in national development policies and offers in return a number of services. Some of these services aim at helping the diaspora to remain invested in national life and development, while others would support migrants in their projects, as well as in the failure of such projects. Thus, for instance, the ministry would help in the recruitment of Malian workers for labour migration schemes but would also provide humanitarian assistance to stranded migrants or repatriation to migrants from troubled countries.

The ministry has acted on some of these promises. It has recently built a large centre in Bamako intended as temporary accommodation for returnees while also serving as the headquarters of the High Council of Malians Abroad, a stakeholder’s organ that dates back to 1991, is present in 62 countries worldwide and has a significant financial and electoral weight. On the other hand, the diaspora from Kayes in particular has invested heavily in the region’s development by building schools and hospitals as well as mosques, and injecting capital into productive activities. The ministry offers institutional support that helps explain the remarkable success of these ventures. But if the Malian diaspora is to become a real development asset, much remains to be done, as is shown by the achievements in that regard of countries such as Israel and India.

However, Malian views on migration as a development asset soon had to take into account the European view of African migration as a problem. In the spirit of the Rabat Process, attempts were made to transform this divergence into some kind of synergy. In 2008, the European Commission (EC) earmarked € 10 m. from the 9th EDF for the creation of a Centre d’Information et de Gestion des Migrations (CIGEM – Migration Information and Management Centre), a pilot organ that was to collect data and offer guidance and support to potential and returning migrants as well as to Malians residing abroad, and generally work to promote legal migration and discourage irregular migration. The EC funding was intended as seed money for an institution that was to become a Malian institution attached to the Ministry of Malians Abroad, and that would also pave the way for the development of a national migration policy. Moreover, CIGEM was intended to be a pioneer project for similar institutions to be installed in other ECOWAS countries.

Mali, in the view of the EC, was an ideal ground for the experiment given ‘the evolution of the relations between Mali and the EU through the Cotonou Agreement, dialogue in the framework of the Franco-Malian Committee and the robust experience in matters of co-development’ (to quote from CIGEM’s operational note). Although CIGEM was intended as an independent organ, it received a three-year financing of €10 m. from the EC. That sum was six times higher than the annual budget of the Ministry of Malians Abroad and made CIGEM accountable to the EC. As such, its main mission was to help stem irregular migration rather than to help migration work for development. Whereas the Malian idea of migration as a development asset is to establish the institutional and regulatory mechanisms that would enable diaspora Malians to invest productively in their country’s economy with the cooperation of host countries, CIGEM essentially worked to deter potential migrants from undertaking the journey to Europe, notably by sensitizing them about the perils of migration and offering support with finding jobs or gainful occupation in Mali. 

In the Malian context, this initiative has proven unrealistic given the fact that there is a scarcity of jobs and credit to finance enterprise and the institutional environment of the country lacks the technical sophistication and resources to relay CIGEM’s actions. When European financing ended, CIGEM lost most of its staff and is now turning into a department of the Ministry of Malians Abroad, burdening its already over-stretched budget with new financial responsibilities.

CIGEM did provide an institutional base for the implementation of at least one proactive European policy. In 2007, a year before the creation of the organ, Spain had signed an agreement with Mali on the basis of the principles that had emerged from the Rabat Process, such as equality in partnership and the linking of migration and development. The agreement, which highlighted that Mali and Spain would reciprocally encourage the lawful employment of their nationals in each other’s countries based on the analysis of labour markets complementarities, enabled Spain to propose a guest workers programme to Mali. The programme was implemented by CIGEM. However, the agreement also included clauses that allowed Spain to repatriate Malian migrants with the cooperation of the Malian government. It ultimately proved unpopular in Mali because the guest workers programme rapidly stalled, while Spain was able to expel a much greater number of Malian migrants than France and Italy in the years following its signing.

In interviews in Mali, it appeared that episodes such as this had alerted Malian civil society to what was perceived as European deceit and an undue zeal from Mali’s governments to cooperate with their cash-wielding European counterparts. Malian officials responded at the time that Spain had not been deceitful, but had to renege on its commitments due to the post-2008 European economic crisis that hit it harder than countries to the north of the Pyrenean Mountains. But the spat that had ensued shows that, unlike in Niger for instance, a strong network of civil society organisations and activists exists in Mali that supports migration and migrants and that includes advocacy groups such as the polemically-named Association Malienne des Expulsés (AME – ‘Malian Association of the Expelled’) and influential public voices such as former cabinet minister and African nationalist intellectual Aminata Dramane Traoré.

It also suggests that, while the Mali government is ready to cooperate with the EU along lines favourable to EU views and concerns, the civil society groupings have succeeded in promoting Mali’s own views and concerns in the public square. For instance, in 2016, a public outcry forced the Malian government to refuse entry for two migrants that were being deported from France with a European laissez-passer (but no Malian passports). The episode demonstrated how sensitive the issue of ‘return and readmission’ is in Mali, instilling caution in the government.

In 2014, Mali eventually adopted a migration policy, the Politique Nationale de Migration (PONAM), at about the same time as Nigeria. Like Nigeria’s policy document, the PONAM attempts to combine the country’s optimistic views on migration with European concerns. PONAM achieves this rather unlikely synergy by aiming to manage migration in Mali within the framework of international norms while also addressing the root causes of migration through development. This language reflects the discourse of the Rabat Process, but what is important is how it is interpreted and implemented. Two European initiatives may be flagged in that regard.

First, building on an earlier Spanish experiment in the policing of irregular migration which focussed on the targeting of so-called human trafficking in the Sahel, the EU earmarked €41.6 m. to set up a multi-country project to train gendarmerie units across the Sahel region. The project, given the acronym GARSI (Groupes d’Action Rapide – Surveillance Intervention), includes the participant countries of the G5 Sahel (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger) plus Senegal. It is presented as a means to implement the section of the Valletta Action Plan that seeks to ‘prevent irregular migration, migrants trafficking and the trade in human beings’. Mali’s GARSI unit was created in 2017. Second, on the ‘development’ side, in the same year the EU emergency trust fund awarded a € 20 m. funding to the Dutch cooperation agency SNV for the design and implementation of projects aimed at creating economic opportunities and jobs in high emigration zones – namely, the districts of Bamako, Gao, Kayes, and Koulikoro.

However, on the all-important issue of return and readmission, Mali remains reticent, with a civil society that is suspicious of European policies. More generally, Malian civil society is highly critical of European conceptualisations of migration, which they accuse of making light of structural causes, conflating migration with criminal activity in a somewhat indiscriminate way, blithely overlooking the negative impact of restrictive European policies on the potential benefits of migration, harming the regional compacts on free mobility and residence, and creating tensions between ECOWAS member states. These complaints are listed in a study published by AME in April 2018.

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