Richard Lawless and Allan and Anne Findlay, Return Migration to the Maghreb: People and Policies, Arab Papers 10 (London: Arab Research Centre, 1982).

Philippe Adair, “Retrospective de la Reforme Agraire en Algerie,” Revue Tiers-Monde 14 (1983).

Jean Bisson, “L’industrie, la ville, la palmeraie au desert,” Maghreb-Machrek 99 (1983).

The recession and increasing xenophobia in France during the 1970s have aided the French government’s attempts over these years to stem the growth of its North African communities—some 1,000,000 Algerians, 300,0000 Moroccans and 205,000 Tunisians. The important role played by immigrants in the recent strikes against Peugeot at Poissy and the rising social costs of meeting the demands of the second generation immigrants have undoubtedly renewed the government’s resolve.

Lawless and the Findlays have compiled a brief but excellent overview of the measures taken by France—with or without the cooperation of the North African nations of origin—to set in motion return migration. The authors then focus on each country of origin. In Morocco, no formal reinsertion programs exist due to the fact that remittances to Morocco are so important a part of the economy, exceeding the combined revenues from tourism and phosphates. Tunisia established a limited set of government programs of reintegration which have achieved very limited results. Algeria, the major focus of the work, has struggled with France for 20 years over the rate of emigration and, more recently, the rate of return.

According to the authors, the Algerian government’s political embarrassment over its dependence on emigration simmered under the surface during the 1960s and early 1970s in spite of the Boumedienne regime’s pro-emigration policies. In 1973, just months before the French imposed a ban on non-EEC immigration, the Algerian government halted all further emigration. Government promotion of return and reintegration became an important plank in the National Charter adopted in 1976. The government pressured state industries to hire returnees, relaxed import restrictions, and created the service de reinsertion to help attract the expatriates home. After little initial success, talks between France and Algeria were started up again in 1978. These culminated in the Algiers Accords of 1980, which laid out a new set of incentives. These included French cash payments to immigrants willing to leave, Algerian government loans to small enterprises being established by returnees, and training programs aimed at raising returnees’ skill levels to the point where they could compete on the Algerian job market. Whether the Algerian economy can actually provide work to returning migrants is questionable. So far, few have returned. Of more importance to the Algerian government is the need in the future to reduce emigration pressure within the country.

Adair provides an analysis of Algeria’s attempts to reduce migration pressure by halting the exodus of its rural inhabitants. He begins by outlining the major agrarian problems inherited by independent Algeria (and tolerated by the Boumedienne regime during the 1960s), such as the khammessat or sharecropping system, the large landless rural population, subsistence orientation of many producers, the inequities of landholdings, and the export orientation of Algerian agriculture as a whole. He then investigates the effectiveness of the agrarian reforms of 1972 in solving these problems.

According to Adair, the agrarian reforms sought in part to reorient government attention and expenditure toward the long neglected agricultural sector and in part to implement the World Bank program of containing rural unrest by creating a strata of small but stable capitalist farmers. These objectives were to be accomplished through the creation of 1000 “socialist villages” and financial reforms aimed at encouraging cooperatives, land redistribution of both public and absentee landlords’ holdings, and through efforts to increase both agricultural productivity and the internal market for agricultural goods. None of the goals of the reform have been met. Landlord resistance, the poor soil of much of the land that has been redistributed, the cooptation of UNPA (Union nationale des paysans algeriens, the organization created to implement operations), and general government inaction have all contributed to failure. Adair concludes that the socialist villages, only a quarter of which are finished in any case, have become mere way stations for rural youth on their way to the cities of the coast.

In contrast to Adair, Bisson finds that in the Algerian Sahara at least, emigration pressure has not only been reduced but reversed. Between 1966 and 1977 alone, 27,000 migrants from the north found employment there. Oil and gas production account directly for only a portion of this labor market expansion. The majority of the working population is employed in the service sector, which thrives on the influx of capital into the region’s economy. Increased employment opportunities also followed the designation of six Saharan towns as chef-lieu de wilaya (district capitals), which brought in its wake a whole administrative apparatus previously unknown in the region.

Bisson cautions against reaching the hasty conclusion that these boom conditions have had only positive effects on the Saharan region. Priority is given to locals when jobs open up, but most residents are qualified only for unskilled labor, and even then labor contracts customarily extend for only three months. Furthermore, the availability of waged labor often robs fathers of sons’ labor in the oases or with the flocks. Bisson points out that nomadism has declined rapidly over the last two decades. For example, in 1966 some 40.6 percent of the population of the wilaya of Ouargla practiced nomadism, while only 10.4 percent did so ten years later.

Bisson does not lapse into romantic despair over the decline of traditional oasis agriculture and nomadism. On the contrary, he states that the decline was brought about as much through voluntary sedentarization, water shortages, lack of conservation, and urban sprawl as through the abandonment of good land for jobs in the city and oil fields. Those who do stay on the land have rapidly worked out a compromise wherein wage labor compliments agricultural and nomadic production. This is particularly evident, the author concludes, in the western Sahara where the population of the oases is actually growing.

In spite of the progress in reducing emigration pressure in the Algerian Sahara, the jobs that have opened up there and elsewhere are insufficient to relieve underemployment and overcrowding on the coast, and represent a mere fraction of the jobs that would be required in order to accommodate the 680,000 Algerian workers and their families now in France. Recent developments, such as the French government’s program of employment reduction in state industries and the flight of French capital overseas, as well as Algeria’s economic slowdown due in part to stagnating oil prices, suggest that the ease with which Algerians emigrated in the past will not be matched in the future by an easy return.

How to cite this article:

David McMurray "Algerian Migration Today," Middle East Report 123 (May 1984).

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