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University of Basel

Highly skilled migrants in Senegambia and Switzerland

Text: Pascal Schmid

Diplomats, academics, scientists and professionals: Many well-educated people live on different continents and experience foreign cultures. The doctoral researcher Khadeeja «Haddy» Sarr is examining life experiences, transnational activates and decision-making of highly skilled migrants from Senegambia living in Switzerland and Swiss migrants living in the Senegambia region.

In today’s contemporary debate on migration, talk is of steps to halt «mass immigration», while the media runs stories about «border controls, floods of refugees, asylum seekers and low-skilled migrants». There is little discussion on the role of skilled immigrants from Africa. As Sarr points out, «usually when people here talk about African migration they think about refugees, border controls and incidents of crime. So events such as the Paris attack or New Year’s Eve in Cologne last year come to dominate the debate on African migration.» Through her research work, which looks at the life experiences of highly skilled migrants from Senegambia and Switzerland, Sarr hopes to correct this distorted picture of African migrants which is reduced to stigmatized ideas of low skill levels and high criminal potential.

«In terms of migration research, the issue of migration and Africa is often discussed at a very political level», Sarr observes. That is why it is important to highlight other areas. More attention is now being paid to highly skilled migrants, but the debate quickly becomes focused on the «brain drain vs. brain gain» – the loss and gain of knowledge and skills caused by the emigration of well-educated people, and its impact on African societies. Sarr, by contrast, is extremely interested in the migrants themselves. She wants to discover how their particular experiences affect their identity and their actions.

Identity and globalization

Sarr has a long connection with the topic of migration, partly because of her own life story. Her parents moved to Sweden from the Gambia in the late 70s. Her father went to university in the USA and settled in Sweden, where he worked as an auditor for a major bank. She herself was born and raised in Sweden, went to university in the USA and England, and later worked in Senegal. «I grew up in Swedish society, but Gambian culture was an important part of my upbringing. As a child, I felt neither fully Swedish nor fully Gambian. It was not until I went to high school that I met children of migrants from all over the world. We had similar experiences and a shared sense of not quite belonging anywhere», explains Sarr.

The cultural identity of second-generation migrants became the subject of her master’s thesis. And her doctorate also focuses on a similar topic. Sarr came to Basel because the Centre for African Studies provided her a setting within which she could explore Africa’s relationship with the wider world and globalization. Here, she was able to become involved in an SNSF-funded project, run jointly with the Department for Cultural Studies and European Ethnology, on the migration and life stories of highly skilled migrants.

Sarr is working on one of two case studies that make up the project. Her research is not based solely on the life stories of highly skilled migrants from Senegal and Gambia in Switzerland – it also focuses on skilled Swiss people living in the two West African states. «Comparing two groups is interesting from a methodological point of view and offers added value, as it provides an additional perspective on the issues I am researching», Sarr says. «The number of people moving from north to south is increasing drastically. Yet, there is still lack of research on professionals moving to Africa for work purposes. In the age of today’s globalization, it is likely to become even more significant.» In the second case study, her colleague, Hélène Oberlé is writing a doctorate on highly skilled Israeli migrants in Switzerland and Swiss people in Israel.

Narratives of migrants

The life stories on which Sarr’s research is based are taken from interviews. «I talk to my interviewees about their experiences and transnational activities. It is important to analyze narratives and the way in which they talk about their lives.» This means allowing interviewees to tell their own stories and analyze their own biographies.

Sarr gives the example of the term «expat». «Most of the Swiss migrants see themselves as expats, only one Swiss person described himself as a highly skilled migrant. Sarr concludes that he might not have identified himself as an expat due to the fact that he had lived in Senegambia for over 15 years and founded his own business. Most Swiss interviewees were there on temporary contract and lived there for shorter periods». By contrast, only one of the Senegambians Sarr intended to interview described himself as an expat: «A Senegalese diplomat in Geneva insisted on being called an expat and not a migrant – even a highly skilled migrant.» Sarr, explains that there seem to be a negative connotation with the word migrant, whereas the term expat is associated with a more privileged and powerful position.

So far, Sarr has conducted interviews with eleven Senegalese and Gambians in Switzerland and nine Swiss people in the two West African states; more interviews are in progress. Sarrs interviewed Senegambians who are diplomats, academics and professionals working in the finance and banking sector; the Swiss are diplomats, employees of NGOs and international organizations, researchers, doctors and entrepreneurs. So far, her study has also revealed a few interesting but non-surprising transnational activities regarding cash flows to families back home.

Cash flows and career planning

Sarr says that it is already clear that some themes are, as expected, more relevant to one group but of little or no relevance to the other. For the African migrants, for example, «remittances» – transferring money back home – are a key issue; this specifically applies to migrants from Senegambia. This is not only about money – it also symbolizes their identity and moral obligations. «One can hardly speak about African migrants without mentioning remittances, is such a significant part of their lives. Most of her interviewees revealed that they frequently send money home to their families: Perhaps your nieces and nephews need money for school fees, or work is being done on your parents’ house, or someone is ill, or there is a wedding or funeral coming up. Whether and how much money is sent, and to whom, tends to be a collective decision based on family strategies.»

Another issue that has a higher priority for migrants from Senegal and Gambia with good jobs is residency status. «Generally, their aim is to secure long-term residency status or even citizenship. Often they envisage staying in Switzerland or Europe throughout their professional career.» Equally, this is also often a collective decision: «Remittances are also an important factor here, together with the possibility of helping relatives to access education in Europe.» For Swiss people in Senegal and Gambia, by contrast, residency status is not a big issue – they are more «on the move». For them, it is more about having the opportunity to further their careers and the opportunity to work in different countries, while their stay in the host country is temporary. «Most of them already know when they will move on to another country or back home.»

However, Sarr has also identified some similarities between highly skilled migrants from Switzerland and Senegambia. Although both groups are relatively small in their host countries, they stand out in their host society due to their skin color and often their religion – the majority of Senegambians are Muslims. Interestingly, both groups have explained that they face hostility and at times feel discriminated against, although in very different ways: «Some of my Swiss interviewees were confronted with the stereotype that portrays Europeans in Africa as powerful and successful. The positive image of the successful European worked against them. Senegambians in Switzerland felt that they had to put in twice the effort – but this time it was in order to rid themselves of a negative image of African migrants.» By highlighting these issues, Sarr hopes to correct this negative image but the issue remains a significant aspect of her research.

Khadeeja Sarr grew up in Sweden as the daughter of migrants and attended university in the USA and England. She is a doctoral researcher at the Institute for Cultural Anthropology at Basel University and the Centre for African Studies in Basel.

More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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