Monday, January 28, 2008

Sociology from the desert

I'm reading a bock at the moment called "Sex at the Margins"; it is not nearly as exciting as its sounds and is mainly a critical look at the connection between the sex industry and migration, and in particular people trafficking. The writer argues that migrant women are not nearly as naive as some in Europe and the west tend to think and on an individual level tend to see prostitution as an acceptable job in order to access the greater opportunities that richer countries offer. I'm currently agnostic on the issue, so far having not read far enough for the author, Laura Agustin, to have fully made her case. I have heard some pretty awful stories of abuse of migrant women, which I'm not fully ready to believe are the social construction of the "rescue industry" as Agustin terms it.

Anyways, I heard anecdotal support for a British sociologist's thesis from the most unlikely of place: a Tuareg tribesman of the Nigerien Sahara. BBC World Service is doing a series on the experience of African migrants crossing the great desert on their way to Europe. The Tuareg worked as a people trafficker, or travel agent depending on how you wish to look at it. When asked why he thought these people from countries far to the south make this dangerous journey, he quickly replied that it can't be because of poverty because many of them arrive in Northern Niger with lots of money. This might sound trite, considering migrants might borrow money or use family savings to get to Europe, the journey being viewed as an investment, but it might point towards the same point as Agustin is making - that when we look at social phenomenon like migration, or indeed terrorism that I research for my work, it is all too easy to ignore the individuals who make up the sociological event. And that does a disservice to the complexity of human motivation and experience.


Quizbo said...

Very interesting... always good to get a challenge to the orthodoxy. I imagine she must get some rather hostile receptions if she speaks at Unis and academic conferences. Though those could be my own narrow preconceptions at work ;)

Bob Hughes said...

There's a very good documentary by Spanish film-maker called "en el camino" about a group of Nigerians who make it to Spain by walking - yes walking - from Nigeria to Ceuta, crossing into Spanish territory by swimming round the perimeter fence and then they attempt to get through the immigration process in Spain.

Their journey takes something like 6 months and they are by no means wealthy when they set off from Nigeria. I think one of them said he left home with 50 dollars. I'm not sure if there's a version with English subtitles but its well-worth watching if you can find one.

My own limited experience suggests they may be a mix of naivité and otherwise. Last year I spent two weeks in Senegal and, when I said I live in Spain, was met with a number of different responses. One guy showed me a boat which was used to traffic people to the canaries. He told me he would never do it - even though he has a wife and children to support - because too many people die. Another guy looked at me wide-eyed and asked if it was a wonderful place.

I also met a very smart and sassy 18-year-old girl who was keen on getting a western boyfriend and seemed well-aware of the practicalities, "I could come and visit you in Spain; you would have to sort out the paper work with the embassy".

On the other side of the world, I read a couple of years ago in the New York Times that a people trafficker has been elected to Mayor of a village in El Salvador. His popularity is built on his success smuggling people into the US.

Like you say, the truth is almost certainly more complicated than the broad-brush summaries make out.