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The Encyclopedia of Migrants

André Sauvage

Sociologist, IAUR, Université Rennes 2, Rennes

Migrants’ cultures, traditions, economic tensions, states’ various policies and political outlooks, and varying demographical pressure (14% of Spain’s population are migrants, 11% in France, 10% in the UK and 3% in Portugal), are all factors which determine the place of migrants in our towns and cities. The homogeneity of statistics masks the varying conditions they live in. The assimilated, many with mixed origin, form strata of western citizens whose family background lies elsewhere in the world. They are singled out by electoral legislation which is exclusive (France, the UK) or inclusive and ordered around reciprocity (Spain, Portugal). Migrants settle into our regions’ societies via the filter of the urban environment.

Is it right to say that studies by researchers in Chicago which shed light on the existence and function of ghettos are no longer relevant? Urban analysts have revealed areas in France (Sentier in Paris, Belsunce in Marseille and Blosne in Rennes) where poor (Jewish, Tunisian or Turkish) migrants developed international businesses in textiles, shoes or construction. But other studies have shown the flipside to this. French cities’ most troubled areas are 25% populated by migrants who mostly (60%) come from Africa and Turkey. Their conditions are aggravated by inherited location: half of those with African ancestry still live in deprived areas, as compared to just 20% of people with European migrant heritage.

Carrying this vulnerability with them, migrants appropriate the urban environment on three levels. The cultural centre that is the home is organised around the private sphere of personal relationships and according to (often highly visible) identity markers; the local area allows for secondary social relationships which range between tacit cooperation and something more distant. Research has shown that migrants’ attachment to their local area pushes them to form closed-off local groups and prevents social integration and mobility. Local areas would not seem to be transitionary spaces through which they learn about local custom. The final level is a public one, those spaces through which anonymous, cosmopolitan crowds pass, where opportunity and tolerance attract young migrants, and where cultural cross-fertilisation springs up, sometimes in the form of illegalities (such as anti-social behaviour, trafficking and theft) until the authorities dream of banning the group from the city centre. Change the focus to look a little closer and other patterns become clear.

Exile creates a psychology which is wrought by the renunciation of a homeland, the ultimate conclusion of which is flight. Unfairly pushed back into cultural regression, migrants live and endure their departure like an undignified denial of their forefathers and educators. They realise their own lack of power to be the guardians of a world their ancestors made for them. Heritage, responsibility and plans are abandoned, and a social vacuum holds sway, threatening to entirely enslave these migrants. When they are on high alert during a fight for survival, only the hope of a promised land keeps them and their loved ones going. Once “there”, migrants’ progression remains uncertain: some are passing through on a kind of nomadic wandering, others settle for good, and between these two options there is an infinite range of variations. At the gates of the city, the uprooted traveller tries various keys to gain access to one of the worlds within, whether that might be the realm of material comfort, personal relationships or life choices.

1- Skill and competition

Previously, hundreds of migrants from North Africa, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Yugoslavia and Poland worked on the building sites for new urban developments. In terms of housing, they split into two contingents. One found accommodation in the town, the other survived in temporary camps, looking after the building equipment. Unions ensured they got paid, this salary being their only source of income. Associations founded on solidarity between Moroccans, Algerians and so on guaranteed repatriation should they have an accident or die. Groups of activists were still fighting for them to be given at least a modicum of consideration, with French language classes, shared meals, and support from revolutionary movements for their struggles.

Today, many of those who came from Turkey are the construction and town engineering entrepreneurs behind around 80% of the homes built in this French “département” (or administrative region). This power is visibly obvious: the parked trucks and the practices of the workers loading them on their way to worksites demonstrate it on a daily basis. It is a power which upsets the local balance. Why? The reasons given are as follows:

1) rules around competition are not respected, employees are not declared and neither are the charges levied for compatriots helping with the suddenly overflowing order book for a few months,

2) the subordination of migrant entrepreneurs, who are limited to being subcontractors because

3) lacking amalgamation and not having design engineers to work with, they cannot access the major public markets. That is exactly why some entrepreneurs aim to invest, thereby securing their own trucks and stock of equipment. Along with cultural facilities, these projects are a sign of movement towards integration which still needs to be embraced.

2- In society

Those living in France already resent the successive arrivals of migrants (from Portugal, North Africa, South-East Asia and so on) who then come from new places (Turkey and Kurdish areas) and alter the atmosphere. With their physical presence, they mark off “their” territory in the settlement district. Their satellite dishes let them follow life back home; young second and third generation migrants rediscover the old language and teach it to their little brothers; but when they go there for their holidays, they say they are “from Blosne”, an area which serves as a reference point. When this sense of rejection surges, migrants wrap themselves up in the systems and services necessary to life and health, creating an urban environment they can call their own.

Housing. Two types of conflict emerge around housing. Firstly, the desire of migrants to establish a place of their own is knocked back: family groupings are sought after by young Turkish couples, but some landlords reject them on the grounds of encouraging social mixing, and they lead to conflict and invective. Despite best efforts, pockets of segregated communities (of Vietnamese and Turks) take shape discreetly. The second type of conflict is about how space is adapted. Migrants create very particular private spaces: shrines to Buddha and ancestral spirits are as present as homes organised Turkish-style or with Moroccan lounges. But such appropriations create problems when an apartment becomes a headquarters and the associated footfall unrestrainedly impacts upon the neighbourhood.

Food. Migrants work busily to produce, pass on and transform their food, which they need to live. Hmongs take up market gardening in neighbouring districts but they take their fruit and vegetable back to their local market. Ritual sparks conflict. In the recent past, people complained that apartments were being used as theatres for slitting the throats of sheep and butchering their meat, leading to the noise of shrieking animals, seepages of blood, odours, vermin, animal skins being left out to dry and health risks. The authorities and Muslim leaders came together to reconcile rites with health and hygiene. While exotic business has gone on peacefully in every district’s commercial centre, tensions arise again. It leads to European regulars fleeing elsewhere, having felt insecure in streets populated by groups of Arab Muslim men, which were now starting to look like souks for halal shops, the rather suspect source of wealth.

Clothing. We might find it charming on the rare occasion we see the saffron kasaya of a Buddhist monk at a festival, but only when such scenes do not start to saturate public space. Clothes are the emblem of the foreigner next door and even a channel for social negotiation, and the clothing of the Arab Muslim world is a source of controversy and rejection. For our gaze to be comfortable, the implication is that it will auto-filter when it violates or is even trapped by unexpected realities. “Spouses are permitted to look at the entirety of each other’s bodies, with the exception of the sexual organs, the sight of which is discouraged as it leads to blindness”. From intimate convictions to public issues, clothing opens the way to social, political or religious investiture. Public space echoes with languages and bustles with burnous, djellabas, hijabs, niqabs and other chadors; are we not seeing the development of a medina in the heart of town, worry those already living there.

Beyond distinguishing traits, an unequal exchange of donations (as a recognition of debts) persists. Two afflictions gnaw away at this link to migrants: names and faces make the suspicions held by those with prejudices more acute. To this we must add an intense populist stigmatisation of dependence on public services. These outsiders are faced with difficult choices: work in services or in art for low pay (with maintenance and exposure via cultural facilities) or get involved in less legitimate business which is risky but pays well (through deals and networks). Other initiatives speak for mothers’ willingness to ease their children’s struggles to read. They fight to stop their young people from dropping out. These children get involved in social groups and come out as independent, responsible adults capable of negotiating their place in public life with other people.

3- Commonality

How can you create a collective work when migrants are still outsiders lacking the right to have their voices heard to ensure the wider community is better managed and transformed? How can we live together when the french common denominator – liberty, quality, fraternity and secularism, the bases for joint creation of the political space – is not comprehended, or even shared? There is no legitimate reason to censor or indeed, in colonial fashion, to gag the expression of cultural diversity.

People are committing to create peaceable shared space. Religious, charitable and local organisations are trying to raise consciousness through day events with names such as “Migrants and Refugees Speak Out!” and the “one migrant family per parish in one year” operation. Associations and unions are setting up conferences and film showings, and such events are being mutually recognised by workshops which celebrate cultural diversity.

Locally, commonality works in close step with two powers. In the name of welcoming secularism, the local area supports various Muslim and Buddhist forms of worship while maintaining a right to monitor them. Tensions around access have led to greater clarity about the need to be open. “It is not a question of allowing ideas which run contrary to equality to endure and accepting that it simply comes down to differences in nationality.” The other power belongs to migrant associations in the local area. Some official representatives help to spread tolerance and act as a barrier against upsurges of nationalism which threaten to bring conflicts between, for example, Turks and Kurds to French cities, as well as ethnocentrism encouraged by proselytism and networks. This tolerance is limited by a lack of projects and activities based around convergence. Occupied, neutralised and deserted, public spaces trace such dynamics on French ground.


Our obsession with assimilation is losing traction. However, restricted events and imaginations do not allow for the peaceful expression of cultural diversity in the social arena. For some the experience of being uprooted leads to homesickness; others find it drives them to succeed. While it is hardly an enviable one, the condition of being a migrant has an advantage. It provides a context to which migrants can submit, but they can also see the cracks in it with greater clarity, allowing them to free themselves. Strait is the gate to the city, and it will only open when the definitions we use are enlightened.