BAMAKO, Mali — It was in Paris, but it wasn’t glamorous work.
Amadou Coulibaly spent his nights swabbing a mop over acres of dimly lit office space as France’s corporate workforce slept. Each dawn, he bedded down with a dozen other Malian immigrants, who rested in shifts in a barren, one-room flat they shared in Paris’s 15th arrondissement. But Coulibaly slept soundly in the surety of his purpose.
Born to a poor family in Bamako, Mali’s congested riverside capital, he dropped out of university in order to support his aging parents. He watched as his wealthier, politically connected classmates graduated into plush government posts. They drove cars and worked in air-conditioned offices while he scratched out a living hawking kola nuts by the side of the road. By the time he had children of his own, all paths to prosperity seemed to have closed but one: the one that led abroad.
Almost a quarter of Mali’s roughly 18 million nationals are thought to live outside the country, mainly in Europe and other African countries. An estimated 120,000 live in France, sending back remittances that exceed France’s development aid to its former colonial possession, according to a favored talking point among Malian officials.
In France, Coulibaly earned about $600 a month, sending half of it home to his wife and children. It put food on the table and paid for school fees. “I didn’t want my children to have to stop their education like I did. That’s the reason I left,” said Coulibaly, whose unwrinkled complexion belies his 59 years. His children now have desks in air-conditioned offices of their own. One daughter is an accountant, and one is a doctor; he has three younger children still in school.
Coulibaly counts himself lucky to have made it to France but resents the manner in which he left it. One day in 2007, he was on his way to the train station when a police officer asked for his papers. Having applied and been rejected for a resident card, he was whisked away to detention. Thirty-two days later, he was put on a flight to Bamako, one of 5,947 Malians whose expulsion from Europe between 2002 and 2013 offered a preview of the coming immigration crackdown.
As Europe grapples with a refugee crisis that saw the number of asylum-seekers jump 122 percent in 2015 to 1.3 million (the previous high was 700,000 in 1992, the year after the Soviet Union collapsed), it has sought to accelerate the deportation of failed asylum-seekers and migrants who arrive without proper documentation.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive body, has recommended using “all leverage and incentives” at the EU’s disposal to “ensure that third countries fulfil their international obligation to take back their own nationals residing irregularly in Europe.” Less than 40 percent of failed asylum-seekers were actually deported in 2013, the commission noted in its 2015 “European Agenda on Migration.”
As part of a broader makeover of its immigration policies, which includes spending nearly $2 billion on development and stabilization programs in Africa aimed at countering the “root causes” of migration, the EU is leaning hard on countries to take their citizens back. In 2016, the bloc deported more than 175,000 people, according to the EU border agency Frontex. But in places like Mali, where only a tiny percentage of young people can expect to find work in the formal sector, and where migration is often seen as a rite of passage, the pushback has been fierce. “You will have revolution and destruction if you start sending people back,” said Coulibaly, who is now living in Bamako with his family.
“You will have revolution and destruction if you start sending people back.”
That is nearly what the Malian government got in December, when it signed a joint communiqué pledging to work with the EU to expedite the return of migrants living there illegally. Protests rocked the capital, and the government was forced to deny that it had ever agreed to help European countries identify and deport Malian nationals. (Baréma Bocoum, a special assistant to Mali’s minister of foreign affairs, declined to comment on the status of that agreement, citing “controversy” and the “sensitivity” of the subject.)
“The fact that the government has denied the EU deal shows how important migration is to the economy,” said Sabane Touré, an analyst at the Bamako-based Coalition for African Debt and Development Alternatives. “If you take the money from migration out of the economy, it will be nothing.”
European officials maintain that Mali is already obligated under international law to take back migrants and failed asylum-seekers. The December communiqué was just aimed at speeding up the process, they say. The Malian government has been reluctant to help European governments identify its nationals — a requirement for their legal return — and often dragged its feet on issuing them travel documents. And when European countries have tried to work around this problem by issuing their own travel documents, diplomatic spates have ensued. In January, the Malian government returned two African migrants deported from France, claiming that it could not verify they were Malians.
Advocates of so-called “take-back” agreements have argued that they could be sweetened with promises of expanded channels for legal migration. But European governments have shown little willingness to take in additional African workers at a time when populist and nativist sentiments are already on the rise. And there is no guarantee that giving African governments a set number of European work visas to distribute will be enough to offset the overwhelming public opposition to deportation agreements.
In Mali, migration is as much a cultural issue as an economic one. The country has a proud tradition of venturing abroad that dates back to the Middle Ages, when caravan traders carrying gold and salt turned cities like Gao and Timbuktu into storied commercial hubs. Those same caravan routes are now used by smugglers; remittances are the new gold. Venturing abroad in many Malian communities, particularly in the south, is seen as an honor verging on an obligation.
Even the criminal syndicates, some of them with links to al Qaeda, that ferry migrants north are viewed as a necessary evil. “The passeur who helped me, was he a bad guy?” said Coulibaly, using the preferred term for smuggler in Mali. “I was able to send my children to school because of him. My daughter went to medical school.”
Coulibaly is now the vice president of an association that supports Malian migrants who have been expelled from Europe. He helps recent deportees get back on their feet and advocates for migrants’ rights. He also lobbies the Malian government not to cooperate with European governments seeking to expel migrant workers like him. In his view, no amount of legal migration or development aid from Europe could ever make up for the remittances that come in from Malians abroad, many of whom migrated through informal channels.
“One migrant can support more than 20 people at home,” he said. “They are the ones paying for homes, for schools, for hospitals. Aid from Europe can’t pay for all this. Without migration, there will be no development.”