Post by Nauja Kleist, senior researcher, Danish Institute for International Studies. In this post Nauja writes about her new book ‘Hope and Uncertainty in Contemporary African Migration' (Routledge, 2017), co-edited with Dorte Thorsen. Nauja works on African migration, with particular focus on return, mobility regimes, and the role of family, gender, hope, and belonging in migration practices.

Contemporary migration is characterized by a mobility paradox: the increased reach and accessibility of communication, media and transport technologies mean that people in many parts of the world are exposed to visions of the good life elsewhere. At the same time, because of growing inequality, paired with restrictive mobility regimes, the vast majority of people in the global South are excluded from the circuits of legal mobility, not least on the African continent.  This paradox raises a number of questions in situations where migration constitutes established livelihood strategies and is perceived as a pathway to a better life: How do (aspiring) migrants respond to restrictive migration policies? How do they understand their life and future? Where do they aspire to go and how? And, finally, how can hope and uncertainty theories enrich our analysis of these issues?

In our new book Hope and Uncertainty in Contemporary African Migration, these questions are at the center of analysis. The volume employs hope as an analytical prism through which to examine the mobility paradox in a range of case studies of primarily West African migration. The introduction argues that hope – characterized by potentiality as well as uncertainty – constitutes a fruitful analytical framework in which to link questions of political economy and mobility regimes with analyses of the collective social imaginaries and aspirations which imbue migration projects. The analysis of hope and uncertainty is further explored through nine case studies, set within and outside the continent, focusing on different moments and locations, from analysis of migration aspirations prior to actual journeys, life in new or established destinations to migrants stuck in transit zones and after deportation. Below, three cross-cutting themes are presented.

Repositories of hope

The first concerns repositories of hope. This implies analysis of the content of hope – e.g. visions of the good life – and of the underpinning notions or knowledges of how to realize or cultivate such hope. These repositories vary considerably but the pertinence of social networks and exchanges run through all chapters, such as the role of family members, friends, experienced migrants and migratory brokers in supporting, advising, or dreaming about migration. But these are not the only ones.

Heike Drotbohm examines how social hope is generated in the interaction with administrative regulations of migration regimes in Cape Verde. Analyzing how aspiring migrants understand the relationship between bureaucratic classification and their gendered life and family positions, she shows that the process of visa application at the American Embassy is experienced as a social performance, based on (perceived) knowledge of the logics of the American mobility regime.

The relationship between legal papers and hope is also central in Ida Marie Vammen’s study of a regularization program for undocumented Senegalese in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but here the migrants have less faith in bureaucratic procedures. Vammen examines how different actors are seen as ‘brokering hope’, showing how Argentinian street hawkers are convinced that the amnesty was the work of God, rather than the successful result of the endeavors of a migration organization. Hence, their social hope is embedded in moral and religious beings, rather than in following state logics.

Finally, Jesper Bjarnesen shows that hope may be found in popular culture. Focusing on young migrants of Burkinabé heritage who fled from Côte d’Ivoire to Burkina Faso with their families between 2000–2005, he analyzes how this group consumes the Ivorian music style of zouglou and its urban and cosmopolitan mode of life and personal comportment. The lyrics and the performance of a confident Zouglouman style serve as a source of knowledge and inspiration for life in Burkina Faso as well as advice for a desired future in Europe.

The time of hope

Temporality and anticipation form another crucial dimension of hope analysis, turning the attention to when and where the potentiality of hope – where ‘the good’ may happen – is perceived to be taking place. We identify three answers to this question: spatial transposition of hope and temporal reorientation to the present and to the distant future.

Steven Lubkemann examines ‘diasporicity’ in relation to considerations of ‘return’ to Liberia among the descendants of the transatlantic slave-trade and refugees from the civil war in the 1980s and 1990s, respectively. He argues that ‘diasporicity’ is characterized by the sense of attachment elsewhere, determined by conditions of structural violence rather than in the sense of originating elsewhere. Thus, in situations of a morally broken down present, hope may be located in a parallel existence within this elsewhere. ‘Diasporicity’, then, constitutes a spatialized instantiation of hope, rather than a temporal one.

The generation of hope under difficult circumstances is also central in Heidi Østbø Haugen’s chapter on a Pentecostal Nigerian migrant church in Guangzhou, China. The pastor and the congregation praise achievement, success and prosperity, not only as goals for the future but also as already achieved facts of the here and now – in spite of the challenges the migrants face. These promises of wealth constitute a reality still in the making which can be appreciated, as Haugen argues, for the social momentum and sparks of hope they produce in the present.

In other cases, however, migrants have their eyes fixed on the future. Maria Hernández-Carretero examines the striking difference between decisions to migrate from Senegal to Spain and decisions to return. She shows how migrants have been willing to confront considerable uncertainty when migrating to Spain but insist on being well-prepared and minimize uncertainty when returning – even if this means postponing going back for years. She thereby demonstrates how the realization of the hoped-for life may be relocated to the distant future while the present is ‘put on hold’ in the context of crisis.

The perseverance and ambivalence of hope

Finally, the chapters analyze the connection between existential and physical (im)mobility and how migrants cope with hardship and suffering when they strand en route and end up in protracted periods of involuntary immobility, are not able to send remittances, let alone return in glorious or just remotely respectable ways. We thereby point not only to the perseverance of hope but also to its limitations.

Taking departure in the notion of migration as adventure in Francophone West and Central Africa, Sylvie Bredeloup argues that migration constitutes a moral experience for young migrants in their search for moral independence as well as their desire to live a different life. The social hope invested in migration thus relates to both the process of migration itself and to its outcome. Adventure is seen as a stage in life – youth – to be followed by settling down in socially respectable ways. If migrants fail to meet such expectations, the adventure turns into an ill-fated one, embedded in shame and social death.

Failed migration projects may thus cause migrants to postpone their return. Yet many migrants show a remarkable perseverance in maintaining a sense of hope, as demonstrated by Hans Lucht. Taking departure in the funeral of a Ghanaian man in Niamey, Niger, Lucht unpacks the migration circumstances of a group of stranded Ghanaian migrants who, despite formidable challenges, maintains that their lives will change for the better. Hoping to return in style to Ghana and refusing to return empty-handed, they cling to a continued faith in that their efforts will pay off – if not in this life, then in the afterlife.

Refusing to return is not possible for deportees, however. In the final chapter of the book, Nauja Kleist examines life after deportation in the context of high-risk migration projects from Ghana to Libya and Europe. While deportees may be seen as successful if they return with resources, returning in an untimely way is embedded in feelings of shame though there is widespread knowledge of the hazards in high-risk migration. Kleist argues that this conundrum is a reflection of the local importance of migration: individualizing failure enables the collective and social hope for a better life through migration, despite the uncertainty it entails.

In conclusion

Together the chapters highlight the role of social imaginaries in African migration today, exploring why and how migration continues to play such a pertinent role in the practices and perceptions of a good life in situations characterized by protracted crisis and restrictive mobility regimes. We thereby also demonstrate that hope analysis is not necessarily a hopeful or optimistic exercise. Rather, in a time where access to safe and legal migration has become one of the key axes of inequality, the link between mobility and hope is both uncertain and precarious.

Note: ‘Hope and Uncertainty in Contemporary African Migration’ is one of the outputs of a research program on the social effects of migration management for West African migrants, funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Kleist, N. (2017) Hope and uncertainty in contemporary African migration. Available at: (Accessed [date]).