Black Availability: Antimigrant Policies in Africa and the Exploitation of Black Migrants

Photo by Irish Defence Forces, licensed under CC BY NC SA.

Restricting African migration to Europe has proved to be good politics for both European and North African leaders. As “tough on crime” strategies of blocking black movement take shape on both sides of the Mediterranean, their popularity testifies to Europe’s alarming need for the prolonged suffering of an exploitable black African underclass to serve as a salve for its own demographic anxieties and political woes.

These issues loom large in the West African nation of Niger, which has been a test site for a host of European migration policies that mobilize antiblackness to help enforce restrictions on human movement. Niger‘s northern neighbor, Algeria—where many draw a distinction between themselves and (sub-Saharan or black) “Africans” (Boulbina and Timera 2018)—has also aligned itself with European antimigration efforts, effectively punishing black peoples for moving within Africa. In what follows, I want to locate black availability, which I define as the presence of black peoples within a space where, due to their structural vulnerability, they can be readily exploited and subjugated by others, at the heart of the racial projects that underpin antimigration efforts in both Africa and Europe.

Contemporary African societies are thoroughly structured by processes of racialization and global white supremacy, which are rooted in the historical development of racial capitalism through slavery and colonialism (Pierre 2012). In her essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” Hortense Spillers (1987, 67) shows how the captors of Africans “earn” the right to dispose of the captive body as they desire and to name that body as they will. They assert the right to make that body legible in the antiblack West, as well as to manipulate it and the mythical value it takes on under racial capitalism. The people caught up in the current neoliberal projects of Europe’s antimigration regime are migrants and therefore subject to exploitation, but are not treated as people entitled to unrestricted self-determination. The restriction of black peoples within what might be called zones of inopportunity thus violently denies the full subjectivity of black Africans.

In recent years, France and other European countries have poured hundreds of millions of euros into Niger in order to bolster that country’s ability to secure its borders, so as to prevent black Africans from reaching Europe. This securitization is, properly speaking, an extension of France’s border to the south; the ulterior motive lies with securing France and Europe more broadly. In 2015, for instance, Niger passed an anti–human trafficking law promoted by European countries through bilateral agreements, which allows judges and local law enforcement to take new forms of action against migrant trafficking. Under this legal regime, migrants are faced with the option of continuing the dangerous journey into Libya or Algeria through the Sahara or engaging in voluntary repatriation to the same home countries where they could not find safety and prosperity in the first place.

Antimigration efforts on the part of the European Union, in this case and others, have relied on certain structural conditions to maintain a stranglehold on black movement. Here, the concept of structural vulnerability extends the materialist insights of structural violence to encompass diverse sources and manifestations of physical and psychodynamic harm (Padilla 2011; Quesada, Hart, and Bourgois 2011; Willen 2012; Castañeda 2013). What produces structural vulnerability is an individual’s location within a hierarchical social order and the networks of effects that this location produces. Christina Sharpe (2016, 16) argues that examinations of black life require recognizing “the ways that we are constituted through and by vulnerability to overwhelming force.” The case of black Africans wanting to migrate or move, a basic freedom that they are often denied (McKittrick 2006), demonstrates that whole groups of people can be rendered structurally vulnerable as they become subject to a Eurocentric and white supremacist global racial capitalist order. Positioned at the bottom of the pyramid, at the whims of a vampiric capitalist bourgeoisie black Africans are configured as available for exploitation by Europeans. It is structural vulnerability that makes black availability possible.

Niger’s anti–human trafficking law has been incredibly effective. In 2015, between five and seven thousand migrants traveled through Niger to Libya each week, but the criminalization of human smuggling and trafficking has reduced those figures to about one thousand people per week. Trafficking has continued, but the law has crushed the livelihoods of many traffickers, making the prospect of crossing the Sahara even more dangerous for migrants who go it alone or take longer routes away from water sources. The European Union has thrown Niger lots of money to implement a trafficker reconversion program, in which former smugglers get funds and training to establish their own licit businesses. However, few have benefited from this program. Out of more than seven thousand people involved in the migration business in northern Niger, less than four hundred have managed to access these resources.

The case of Niger shows how conditions of blackness serve as generative sites at which practices of surveillance and sousveillance become articulated and contested (Browne 2015). Likewise, conditions of black availability allow for the continued mobilization of antimovement technologies and practices, generating a cottage industry that rationalizes the quarantining of African peoples. Restricting black movement, as a facet of the globalization of racist practices under neoliberalism, is big business. Technologies of control are deployed in Africa to monitor and limit black flesh that is deemed out of order. Drones, security personnel, border controls, and visas are part and parcel of broader logics of segregation, surveillance, and control of black peoples around the globe (Andersson 2014; Browne 2015).

Crucial to my argument here is that the policing of black bodies does not only involve bodies in movement, but also bodies that are unmoving. The availability of black bodies requires as much expenditure of effort as their exclusion. The International Organization for Migration, as the UN agency tasked with monitoring migration flows and enforcing the European Union’s (anti)migration policies, counts the number of migrants passing into and out of Niger. But it also keeps a racial census. Knowing the number of black people going into Algeria, Libya, and other countries that are not considered black is important to Europe. Knowing this number serves a purpose beyond the ostensibly benign activity of counting, providing Europe with the data needed to fuel its antimigration technology R&D programs.1

The value of the quarantined would-be migrant consists in his or her ability to be manipulated into generating real capital, and therefore he or she must be made over as an object of knowledge on which mythical capital production relies. As we have seen, European authorities have extended their operations beyond their own sovereign territories. Since in these settings they are no longer confined to the laws of Europe but instead to the messy and inconsistent interpretation of bilateral agreements, the European Union has effectively created geographies of exclusion on foreign territory (Mountz 2010; Andersson 2014). Africa and black Africans in particular comprise a state of exclusion: another condition of vulnerability making black availability possible.

Yet the European Union has not acted alone in its attacks on black movement. Recently, Algerian officials have relied on the presence of black migrants as scapegoats for the country’s many internal problems. Through a combination of political expediency and long-held racial discrimination, Algerian leaders have leveraged black availability to offer migrants as a political sacrifice in an effort to rid their country of those who they consider criminals and harbingers of disease. Leaders have also used racist rhetoric to make excuses for Algeria’s own high unemployment rate among youth, many of whom leave the country for Europe in search of more stable economic futures.

In a further example of disregard for the lives of black peoples, Algeria is reported to have abandoned more than thirteen thousand African migrants, including pregnant women and children, in the Sahara desert since 2017. NGOs and rights organizations have called on Algeria to stop the mass expulsions and abandonment of people in the desert, but the powerful European nations that benefit from Algeria’s racist activities have failed to apply any sanctions.

The wants and needs of Europe have created a system in which blacks both need to be kept out and quietly reeled in to work under the table. Greater attention thus needs to be paid to the symbolic work that the positioning of black Africans vis-à-vis Europe performs. Black Africans are pushed around like pawns so that European politicians can appear tough on crime and immigration. White Europe demands a scapegoat for demonstrating its leaders’ fidelity to racist, white supremacist, and liberal ideals of Western civilization. Such demonstrations of support for the white cultural ideal rely on the availability and subjugation of black peoples, which are reproduced through Europe’s policies and activities throughout Africa.

The anti-immigrant racism espoused by leaders from Trump to May to Macron is telling. It signals that Europe’s historical, physical, and economic proximity to Africa will continue to organize the uneven racial relationship that it enjoys at the expense of black peoples. Many African nations, most of which are former European colonies, remain sources of extractable material and sociopolitical resources for European powers. The manipulation and abuse of Niger in the context of antimigration efforts shows how the availability of black Africans offers outsized benefit to Europe at the expense of Africa. Such an understanding of black availability is, however, largely absent from the European public’s fixation on the so-called migrant crisis.


1. In addition to the surveilling and counting of migrants, representing the inventorying of extractable and exploitable value, the IOM provides spaces to temporarily house and hold migrants in Niger. The IOM manages five transit centers in Niger, where migrants can find temporary accommodation provided that they agree to voluntary repatriation. This scenario exposes and reproduces the vulnerabilities of structural inequality, economic disenfranchisement, and capitalist depravity to which migrants are subjected, forcing them to choose between staying in town without lodging as they wait for a chance to try the road north or giving up the journey by being coerced to go home. Either choice positions people in a place without cover; there is little opportunity at home beyond the continued exploitation of poorly waged surplus labor, while risking the journey northward leaves migrants physically vulnerable and available for continued exploitation in North Africa and Europe. Even the policies of humanitarian actors may contribute to rendering black persons available for exploitation.


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