Mobility of memory, memory of mobility: Western Mediterranean crossings in the XX and XXI Centuries


by Gabriele Proglio

The aim of this research project is to study human mobility and its memories in the Western Mediterranean area during the Twentieth and Twenty-first centuries; in particular, in both directions between Morocco and Spain, Algeria and France, and Tunisia and Italy.
‘Mobility’ is used here to mean the possibility (or impossibility) of migrating from one shore of the Mediterranean to the other. Thus, I am interested not only in the material and discursive production of the Southern and Western borders of Europe but also in strategies adopted for controlling versus illegally crossing frontiers. Studying two-way migration flows between Europe and North Africa means understanding the mode of operation of entry mechanisms in relation to several factors and their combination (not only citizenship but also race, gender, colour, class, age, etc.). Hence, the project is devoted to mapping these possibilities and the trajectories of migration, as well as overlapping and intertwining stories and memories across the Mediterranean area. The following dimensions in migration will be investigated: “vertical”, between the (former) colonizer country and the overseas; “horizontal”, between two or more Maghreb countries; and “transverse”, across several North African and European countries (e.g., France-Morocco-Tunisia; Italy-Tunisia-Algeria, etc.).

The research project’s historical background will support the exploration of diverse patterns of movement across the European borders and, in particular, the attempt to map a ‘stratification of memories’ as relating to said movements. In order to reach this goal, I will use different typologies of sources: primary sources will be consulted at the National Archives in Rabat, Alger and Tunis and those in Rome, Madrid and Aix-en-Provence. Furthermore, I will conduct oral interviews in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, as well as with former migrants now residing in Europe.

According to the existing literature, the area was host to two main migration flows in the observed period: one involving Europeans moving to North African countries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a consequence of French colonialism; and the other involving Maghribi and Sub-Saharan peoples moving to Europe from the 1960s to the present. The aim of this project is to understand if two-way flows can be compared with one another and to detect continuities and discontinuities in individual recollections of migration among Europeans and non-Europeans.

The three case studies offer several advantages. First of all, the analysis of mobility in the area allows for an understanding of the evolution of roles and entry mechanisms to Europe from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present. Second, a comparison of memories collected in Europe and North Africa can shed light not only on continuities and discontinuities, common traits and specificities but also on different attitudes and images associated with the recollection of the journey and the migratory project. Third, a mobility network in the Western Mediterranean area can be traced.

Although all three case studies display a close relationship between the French colonial presence and postcolonial conditions, it is possible to highlight several differences.
The French colonization of Algeria began in 1830 and continued amid stiff resistance. By 1848, most of its territory was under French control and the North African country officially became an integral part of France. Several French colons arrived and seized land previously owned by Algerians. Members of the predominant Muslim and Jewish communities were declared French subjects, not citizens. Their status changed in 1865, when Napoleon III allowed them to apply for full citizenship rights. That was the starting point for a flow of Algerian migration towards Paris, involving mainly male farm workers. It was only in 1975, a

few years after Algeria had gained independence, that France modified its Nationality Law and approved regulations allowing Algerian immigrants to apply for family reunification. In the meanwhile, the advent of Algerian independence in 1962 had brought about the repatriation of thousands of pieds noirs ― people of French origin living in North Africa. However, life for Algerians in France has never been easy because of socio-economic discrimination and territorial segregation. Despite their being French nationals, second generation French- Algerians ― the so-called Beurs ― were, and still are, regarded as no more and no less than migrants.

In 1881, when France established its protectorate in Tunisia, the French started to settle in the African colony that was already home to Italian and sub-Saharan immigrant communities. Just as in the case of Algeria, Tunisia’s independence in 1956 led to the repatriation of thousands of pieds noirs. After a few years, in 1960, the first fishermen started to arrive in Mazara del Vallo, marking the beginning of a migration that lasted well into the Seventies and Eighties and saw Tunisians make their way to Sicily and settle across Italy. According to the 1990 census ― established by the Martelli Law on immigration in the same year ― Tunisians were 42,223, the second largest immigrant group. At the end of 2000, they were just over 50,000 and grew to 122,354 in 2013. New Italian immigration laws and EU agreements built a complex control system for this area in the Mediterranean region, based on surveillance, detention and expulsion of illegal immigrants. Since 2011, though, there has been a surge in migration from Italy to Tunisia: the economic downturn has driven thousands of retirees with small pensions, doomed to live under poverty conditions in Italy, to relocate to the other side of the Mediterranean.

The French protectorate in Morocco was established in 1912 and lasted until 1956, when independence was declared. As in the case of Tunisia and Algeria, thousands of pieds noirs asked to be repatriated to France. Since the second half of the 1980s, there has been a migration flow of non-European people, in particular from Morocco and the Sub-Saharan countries, to Europe. In 2005, widespread border control policies were adopted in the European Union, and Melilla and Ceuta ― located on the African side of the strait of Gibraltar ― turned into militarized European borders, where migrants are routinely rejected and expelled.

There is a large body of literature on migrations from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia to Europe ― in particular France and Italy ― and from France and Italy to North African countries. However, most of it does not encompass the entire period and very few works cover the totality of migration flows from Maghreb to Europe. As yet, no study has provided a comprehensive analysis of two-way flows and typologies of migration (vertical, horizontal or transverse) in the Western Mediterranean area in the observed period. Furthermore, the majority of available works investigate these migrations in light of the relations between the colonial past and postcolonial subjects. The three case studies in this project show instead that since the end of the Nineties people from Sub-Saharan and Central Africa and the Horn of Africa have crossed the same borders. Finally, the combination of archive and oral sources in the study of these migrations is an indicator of the project’s high relevance to the analysis of the Mediterranean Sea not as a mere natural frontier between Europe and Africa, but also as a border with its own production of space in terms of people’s intersubjective memories and positionalities on both the European and the North African shores.