On 18 December 2013, Sami Moussa Abdallah died in Bamako, Mali. He had spent many days with a fever, and was so thin and weak that he could no longer stand up. He was young, deaf and dumb. Nothing was known about him other than his date of birth and the names of his parents. These were written on a safe conduct pass issued by the Malian consulate in Jeddah when he was expelled from Saudi Arabia. He had been supported by the Malian Expelled Migrants Association (AME), founded in 1996 in Bamako by Ousmane Diarra, a Malian trader expelled from Angola for helping undocumented migrants (Lecadet, 2012). AME had searched for his parents for months, through the good offices of the Malian authorities in Bamako and Jeddah, but to no avail. However, through their work with him, AME had discovered several places in the centre of Bamako where expelled migrants from Saudi Arabia had settled. Like him, they were ‘Malians’ who had been born or grown up in Saudi Arabia, but who had been expelled as part of the Saudi government’s ‘Saudization’ policy, an attempt to move away from private sector dependence on migrant workers and to restrict employment to Saudis. After expulsion they found themselves in Bamako, rootless and without bearings, and not speaking any of the languages most commonly spoken in Mali. Their inaudible or silent voices belong to their segregated existence.
The day of Sami Moussa’s death, those Malians who had shared a large house in the Kalambancoura area of Bamako went with him to the annual meeting of AME to testify to the appalling predicament in which they found themselves. They spoke Arabic, and almost no one in the room understood their language, but they did understand their anger. In his speech, Amadou Coulibaly, head of social action at AME, deplored the death of this young man. Without a voice and without relatives, he had nonetheless borne witness to the existence of a forgotten group, and by his death had become their emblem:
Mr Moussa’s case allowed us to make contact with other expelled migrants who are here today. These migrants are a special case because they were almost all born in the country where their parents still live. Furthermore, they have been sent back to Mali where the majority of them have no secure family ties. In addition, they don’t speak either Bamanan or French, which are the languages most commonly used in Bamako. These migrants speak Arabic, Tamasheq or Songhay. Their situation forces them to regroup in isolated areas, usually building sites or abandoned buildings.
For all the talk about globalisation, the prerogatives attached to the nation state remain as strong as ever. Expulsion, increasingly standardised and internationally legitimised, can lead to brutal absurdities. Because they had migrated to Saudi Arabia a long time ago, and their families were firmly settled there, these Malians saw their nationality as a mere formality. It was, however, this ‘formality’ that enabled their expulsion without any legal process. Formal citizenship can be an empty shell, and expulsion on that basis leads to whole groups of people being uprooted from their land and isolated from their language.
Bamako hosts many expelled people. Malians expelled from Algeria, Libya and Mauritania wander the area around Sogoniko station, and sleep in cardboard boxes in Bamako Hall, a disused indoor market. Moreover, this phenomenon is not confined to Bamako: in Tinzawaten on the Malian border with Algeria, in Agadez and Arlit in Niger, and in Kye-Ossi on the border of Cameroon with Equatorial Guinea, ruined houses, abandoned or lent by their owners and often linked to people smugglers, provide migrants with temporary shelter.
Amongst themselves migrants refer to these places as ghettos. Unobtrusively hidden away and isolated even when in the centre of a town, these ghettos are stopping places where people are blocked, and the weak – or those driven mad by expulsion, violent treatment and loss – are a hidden, utterly destitute population. Ghettos are marked by exhaustion, lack of resources, illness and sometimes death. However, the abandonment in which many expelled migrants find themselves pushes them to regroup and organise, and ghettos are also places where a collective life can be rebuilt. Those who have financial assistance from friends or family can use them as transit points and set off again, negotiating their journey to a new destination.
Thus, while the proliferation of expulsion across the world is creating new forms of political hegemony, it is also generating new modes and spaces of organising. Ghettos respond to a need for shelter and for regrouping immediately following expulsion, but they also make up an underground geography of places where people organise themselves, amid hardship and ordeals, to circumvent constraints imposed by the state. One could liken this ‘shifting localisation’, used by Agamben to describe the heterogeneous nature of contemporary forms of camp, to a poor form of politics: the ghettos and post-expulsion self-organisation show how expelled migrants rely on the resources of the group and their national identity, that is on the very methods of politics, to endure the rigours of the post-expulsion period and to organise their future mobility. State politics may create ghettos as places of deportation without a voice, yet they are also home to a subversive and demanding language.
Lecadet, C. (2013) ‘From Migrant Destitution to Self-Organization into Transitory National Communities: The Revival of Citizenship in Post-Deportation Experiences in Mali’, in B. Anderson et al. (eds.) The Social, Political and Historical Contours of Deportation, New York: Springer,.
Lecadet, C. (2012) ‘Expulsions et Prises de Parole au Mali: Quand le Politique se Récrie en ses Marges’ in M. Agier (ed.) Politiques de l’Exception. Réfugiés, Sinistrés, Sans-papiers, Paris: Editions Téraèdre.
The author thanks Rosemary Masters, who translated the paper from French