A couple weeks ago The New York Times published a compelling and far too brief article titled Afghan Youths Seek a New Life in Europe. The focus is on “Afghan boys” immigrating to France.
Thousands of lone Afghan boys are making their way across Europe, a trend that has accelerated in the past two years as conditions for Afghan refugees become more difficult in countries like Iran and Pakistan. Although some are as young as 12, most are teenagers seeking an education and a future that is not possible in their own country, which is still struggling with poverty and violence eight years after the end of Taliban rule.
The boys pose a challenge for European countries, many of which have sent troops to fight in Afghanistan but whose publics question the rationale for the war. Though each country has an obligation under national and international law to provide for them, the cost of doing so is yet another problem for a continent already grappling with tens of thousands of migrants.
European nations have a much greater obligation than that created by national and international law. The article frames poverty and violence in Afghanistan as existing despite the war. In reality aggression from countries including the U.S. and European nations is productive of increased instability and refugee populations. The article discusses the experiences of “Afghan boys” now living in France but hardly addresses their reasons for leaving home in the first place.
Age and gender are obvious features of the population discussed in this article so it’s strange they are not addressed directly. I am particularly interested in young men immigrating to France as a result of war given the country’s history of gendered immigration.
I want to discuss the history of immigration to France from North Africa as I see a lot of potential parallels and think it will provide context. Knowledge of North African immigration should show how important it is to explore the reasons for young male immigration, why it is this particular part of the population that is moving to France and how this might impact individuals, families, and communities. It can give us hints as to how the country may treat this population and the potential for more people from Afghanistan to follow. France’s history with immigrants who are understood as Muslim is a history of exploitation and marginalization that has led to extreme social and political exclusion and violence. So this current moment when similar or related patterns could occur deserves a historical perspective.
North Africa and Afghanistan are very different places, but both have populations understood as Muslim. I am interested in how these populations may be understood as similar, not claiming any inherent similarity or spreading the idea of the so-called Muslim World.
North Africa was a primary site of French colonialism. During World War I, young men from North African colonies, primarily Algeria, were brought into France to replace the labor force. A larger and more permanent immigration to France occurred following World War II. A labor force was needed to replace those who had died and for the reconstruction of Paris. Again, these immigrants were primarily young men. In the 1950s, when the process of decolonization began in Algeria, women and children began coming to France as well.
Bringing young men out of the colonies took them away from family-based and communitarian social structures. When women and children moved to France communities organized based on kinship and area of origin were recreated. They became sites of shared power and enabled groups of people to once again connect with those who spoke a common language and shared a common heritage. This was during the Algerian War of Independence, and FLN (the Algerian National Liberation Front) supporters began organizing in France. French state forces clashed with pro FLN Algerians, including at the Paris massacre of 1961 when police attacked a peaceful demonstration. To break up anti-colonial organizing and with the stated goal of promoting integration North African immigrants were relocated to public housing in the banlieues, northern suburbs of Paris. Algerians, Tunisians, and Moroccans were treated as one population and grouped together in small, overcrowded apartments in large buildings. The spatial reorganization of populations threatened cohesive communities.
The building of public housing was supported by a wealth of construction jobs for immigrants from the mid-50s through the mid-70s. Since the 1973 oil embargo large-scale deindustrialization has occurred in France and the job market in the banlieue has shrunk by half. The North African immigrant population has become increasingly separated from economic and political involvement, confined to suburbs that lack transportation to Paris and have been neglected by the state.
France is officially a raceless state – race may not be recognized by the government. North Africans are treated as a racial other and face harsh discrimination, including employment discrimination, but this cannot be legally addressed along racial lines. When this population becomes visible in the press it is in a very gendered way. So-called “riots” involving “youths,” understood as North African and/or Muslim young men, have received international press coverage in recent years. Religion is a primary lens for understanding this population since France is also a secular state (of course its racelessness is based on a white French norm and secular language masks Christian norms). Bans on the burqa, hijab, and other religiously associated clothing, especially in schools, put young Muslim women in the spotlight. Veiling has been conceptualized as anti-secular behavior, out of step with mainstream French culture. The veil has been used to paint those understood as Muslim as oppressive to women, in contrast to white French culture which is supposedly more enlightened. Rather than real people capable of thinking for themselves young Muslim women are seen as being in need of saving, not capable of making their own choices, and evidence of a broad cultural, religious, and/or racial group’s inferiority.
This is in line with the treatment in the press of young women and girls in Afghanistan. I draw a connection not only because of potentially related immigration patterns but because both populations are understood as Muslim, grouped together along religious lines as distinctly different from white Judeo-Christian Americans and Europeans. “Afghan girls” appear in the press most often as targets of violence. This reinforces notions of Afghanistan as a sexist place with a sexist Muslim population.
The New York Times is very interested in “saving the world’s women,” a framing that robs women of their agency. Further, “the world” is a phrase used to suggest places outside so-called Western countries. It implies women who are elsewhere and different need saving, and this often means Muslim women. So I do not expect excellent coverage of the reality of young Afghan women’s lives. But when discussing immigrant “Afghan boys” the paper fails to examine why it is this particular part of the Afghan population that is immigrating to France. Where are young Afghan women when they are not being attacked and in need of saving? Where are any Muslim young women in France when they are not perceived as going against white secular (read: Christian) cultural norms and being accused of false consciousness?
The article on “Afghan boys” suggests they are moving to France looking for work. The country already has structures in place for exploiting the labor of those understood as Muslim or excluding them from employment and segregating them away from the French metropole. It is important to understand the stories of young men moving from Afghanistan to France not just as isolated personal narratives but as the result of politically meaningful actions and the early moments of potential conflict within the state. How is this situation different from or informed by past immigration history? How will the French state respond to the presence of Afghan young men and how will it react if they are followed by families?