Center for Migration and Refugee Studies

Author's Department

Middle East Studies Center

Document Type

Research Article

Publication Title

Migration and Refugee Movements in the Middle East and North Africa

Publication Date



On both sides of the Mediterranean, labour migration from North Africa to Europe is seen as a problem. At the official levels, this problem is mainly treated from a security perspective with the greatest efforts directed at closing the loopholes through which migrant labour manages to reach Northern shores. Young men from many parts of the “South” go to extreme lengths and bear great risks to get to Europe. This paper addresses the case of Egyptian labour migrants in France. This research attempts to understand this issue from the point of view of the migrants themselves, and in the context of the now chronic problem of unemployment in rural Egypt. It is obvious that the extent of the problem reaches beyond unemployment for youth, especially those with intermediate education, as the dream of travelling to work abroad is a popular fantasy among this group in particular. With diminishing possibilities of travelling to Arab countries, travel to Europe has recently become an attractive option; the realisation of this dream, however, is proving very costly in many ways. The particular focus of this study is the villagers of the Gharbiya village of Mit Badr Halawa. This village provides a large number of the clandestine workers living in France, many of whom work in the construction sector and in the weekly food markets in Paris. Apart from Mit Badr, there are a number of other Delta villages whose names recur very often in this connection; Mit Badr remains, however, the most prominent.2 Migrants from the Delta village of Sibrbay have been studied by Detlef Müller-Mahn. My findings on the networks of the Badrawis (people of Mit Badr) and the dynamics of life in the transnational space are very much in line with Müller-Mahn’s analysis. The group I am dealing with is distinguished by the purpose of migration, which is working to make money that is mainly used to improve one’s (and one’s family’s) living conditions at home. One important feature of this type of migration is that, regardless of the actual outcome, the immigrant considers his stay temporary. The purpose of migration is directly related to gender assigned roles and responsibilities in rural Egypt, where the burden of provision for the family is a major defining attribute of “the real man.” The typical profile of members of the most recent wave of these economic migrants is that they are young men with an intermediate-level of education with a certain amount of training usually in building and construction work. They start as apprentices with wages averaging 40 Euros. Within a year or two they acquire the skills that enable them to become full-fledged skilled workers with daily wages ranging between 70 and 100 Euros. This research draws a preliminary map delineating the characteristics of this group/community, and starts to address the question of why this village in particular stands out as an exporter of labour to France. This paper is conceptually informed by two lines of thinking. First, this study situates itself within the recent body of scholarship on transnationalism and transnational space. I am here adopting the definition proposed by Basch, Schiller and Blanc who see transnationalism as “… the processes by which immigrants forge and sustain multi-stranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement” and that “(t)ransmigrants take actions, make decisions, and develop subjectivities and identities embedded in networks of relationships that connect them simultaneously to two or more nation-states.” (2000: 7, emphasis added) The group I am dealing with displays a high degree of simultaneity, where decisions, interests and indeed most aspects of life are carried out within networks that span the two worlds. While simultaneity is often taken as a primary obstacle to ‘integration,’4 I am here more interested in its role as an instrument for perpetuating the flow of migrants and enforcing the existence of Badrawis as a strong group. The second theoretical influence here draws on work on manhood and masculinity, particularly the view that there are a variety of types and styles of manhood even within the same society. (Loizos 1994; Kandiyoti 1994).

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