Friday, July 22, 2016

Harraga: Snapshot on A Migration and Its Representation

Baya Yantren 

(Baya is a Law student at McGill University and she can be reached at

Harragaحراقةis a word that has many meanings, that has its own sounds, its images, its texts, and most of all it is a word that has claimed its own bodies. Derived from the classical tri-literal root حرقmeaning 'to burn', this word has an even longer history, a history which has impregnated the word with metaphor.

Harraga is one of the current methods of irregular emigration:  though its name is ‘el harga’, it is the person who does it that is called ‘harrag’, the plural of which is the term ‘harraga’. It is this word that has gained much media attention and has come to mean both the phenomenon and its candidates. Harraga is a phenomenon that, more than any other form of irregular immigration—by virtue of its physical weight and its and symbolic meanings—puts into question the state, and this time on a global scale. 

Algerian Migration

Since the publication of Abdelmalek Sayad’s The Suffering of the Immigrant, much has changed in the ways of emigration from Algeria, North Africa and, more generally, from around the Mediterranean. The traditional pattern of emigration from Algeria that automatically translates into immigration to France has been put into question, and the validity of the traditional Paris-Montreal-Algiers triangle of Algerian migration has been interrogated. It remains, however, that the migration of Algerians to France still was numerically the most important inflow of non-EU population to France in 2012. If the predominance of Algerian migration to France remains, the past thirty years have nonetheless witnessed a marked change in migratory fluxes.

From the early twentieth century to the mid 1970s, Algerian immigration was mostly a labor immigration of single males. It soon became, after the official closure of the French frontiers in 1973, a matter of family reunification. This procedure is sanctioned by the laws of the European Union and remains the main way of legal entry into France for potential Algerian immigrants. Demands of asylum, particularly during the bloody 1990s in Algeria, also grew in importance after this official closure. Yet, parallel to these developments, France and Algeria have also witnessed the growth of illegal migration which, despite its extensive media attention, constitutes a small percentage of total Algerian immigration to France.

Irregular emigration has a long history. The European Commission has outlined its main patterns: illegal entry by a person either without documents, or with falsified or false documents, and legal entry by a person who then overstays the authorized stay period and/or violates the agreement of entry by practicing remunerated activities. Irregular emigration by overstaying a visa was popular among Algerians when the possibility of obtaining tourist visas to a European country was high. When this opportunity decreased, clandestine embarkation aboard commercial and non-commercial ships (as well as buses) increased, along with the falsification of travel documents.

Words and Images

 In the Algerian context, 'Harraga' is a familiar term. In the press, it is a daily occurrence. On the other side of the Mediterranean, in the French press, the word has also been introduced, mainly through the publication of Boualem Sansal’s novel Harraga.  Harraga has reached the French shores, but not the French shores alone. Over the past ten years, the Spanish press has also imported this term to refer to seafaring clandestine immigration, and El Pais and El Mundo combined have printed over twenty five important topical articles since 2001 mentioning the word 'harraga'. In both the Spanish and French contexts, there are common bases:  the volume of articles concerning el harga bloat around the years that span 2006 to 2013, and the first appearances of the term begin in 2001. What is surprising in this case is that the French press has dealt so extensively with the phenomenon of harraga, despite not being directly impacted. After all, no harraga boats usually land on French shores, strategically preferring to head for Italian or Spanish shores.

In order to counter the perceived threat of illegalized migration, France has been at the leading front of the creation of migration control policies for the E.U., encouraging southern Mediterranean states to comply and enforce coastal regulatory procedures in exchange for financial aid, such as in the case of Morocco, or political capital, such as in the case the oil-rich countries of Libya and Algeria.Europe, in this case, has outsourced its security measures by pressuring North African governments to impose controls on the border and on the individual. This has engendered a violent repression of potential emigrants along various points on their journey’s map, from the Saharan and Sub-Saharan outposts to the Mediterranean sea itself.


'Yakoulni el Hout ouala yakoulni eddoud' [I’d rather be eaten by fish than by earthworms]

A popular saying, 'a harrag’s manifest'. I’d rather die at sea than on land. That is to say, I’d rather die trying to leave than staying behind. This phrase asks the question: Why leave at this price? This question of the causes of harraga, the constant return on the reasons for this perilous immigration, haunts Algerian press. Here, the  throbbing question: Why do harraga? Why 'burn'?
The economy!                                     Boredom!                       Adventure!
State repression!                                 Mektoub!                     Le chômage!
Hopelessness!                                     Identity crisis!                The West!

In her article 'Les « harraga-s » du Sud au Nord, les relations par le bas,' Fatima Nabila Moussaoui follows in Abdelmalek Sayad’s footsteps, interviewing harraga that have tried and failed to emigrate, as well as candidates to emigration who have not yet attempted to sail away. Harraga is an emigration that touches almost all groups of society, from the educated to the illiterate, from the poor to the well-off, to the point where 'harraga has started to become, for some of our youth, an archetype.' She outlines three main profiles: The first profile is that of a single young man (aged 22-35), from an urban middle-lower class background, educated and with a professional degree of some kind. His reasons for leaving are usually related to unemployment, and a general lack of opportunity, as he aspires to economic success in Europe. The second profile is a growing category of harraga: the older man (aged 40+) who leaves his family and quits his job to emigrate for purely economic reasons. The third profile is that of younger boys (aged 15-20) who leave, often without telling their families, searching for adventure and the ostentatious material pride of the few who have returned successfully. She also notes a growth in women harraga (aged 20-35), single, widowed, or divorced, sometimes pregnant, who seek to emigrate to 'change lives'.  In these interviews, as was noted by Sayad in the 1970s and 1980s, there remains the alibi of work.

In economic terms, whereas Sayad pointed to the breakdown of the peasant economy as the motivating factor for the generation of emigration, migration has been led by globalization of the Algerian and European economies, and inseparably, globalized culture, that has since fuelled migration. Saskia Sassen explains that 'informalization is embedded in the structure of our current economic system, [and] particularly manifest in large cities' , which suggests that the pattern explained by Sayad remains valid: it is 'jobs for immigrants', including illegalized migrants whose labour satisfies the needs of capital, that create 'immigration'.

In addition to the alibi of work, this desire is the product of a series of shared and well-maintained illusions at the social level regarding emigration and immigration.At the state level, illusions endure. The harrag is seen as the ungrateful youth in the thrall of delinquency, who foolishly and naively dreams of a better situation for himself. The key idea, however, remains that he is a person who belongs to the Southern shores, that his place is in Algeria, and that his body and person are claimed by this appurtenance. The Algerians grapple to keep him in, where he belongs, and the Europeans push him out from where he cannot belong. This kind of defensive 'state fundamentalism' in Sayadian terms, is in operation during mass repatriations,of dubious legality, processes during which bodies are returned 'where they belong'.

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