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Treiber, Magnus (2013): Grasping Kiflu’s Fear – Informality and Existentialism in Migration from North-East Africa. In: Modern Africa : politics, history and society, Vol. 1, No. 2: pp. 111-139 [PDF, 449kB]


Five decades after sociologist Everett Lee published his universal ‘Theory of Migration’, rationalising etic explanations of praxis in unprivileged migration still prevail. In this article I critically discuss commonly used concepts such as coping strategy, agency and creativity that have been widely derived from the study of uncertainty in urban and rural Africa. Subsequently I suggest reassessing the concept of informality within the context of migration, where it evolves alongside migration’s informal/formal divide. Informality then includes migration’s specific existential dimension and can be understood as a typical mode of action in unprivileged migration. Informality potentially bridges the gap between ‘acting’ and ‘being acted upon’ (Jackson 2005), it renders active where otherwise passivity and exclusion have to be faced and thus feeds imaginations of a better life elsewhere. Informality, however, also shapes people and their view of the world. This is explicated exemplarily with reference to my own fieldwork with migrants from Eritrea and Ethiopia. I argue that migrants’ agency should not be simply alleged from above, but conceptualised from empirical research. The study of migrants’ informal praxis can not only contribute to theoretical debates in migration studies but also refers to a global perspective.

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