Originally posted May 2010

When large-scale emigration from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia began, around the time of their independence, international migrants were overwhelmingly from the poorest and most marginalized parts of the Maghreb. Emigrants were often encouraged to leave as a way of reducing unemployment and political instability in their home regions. But once they were overseas they were either viewed with suspicion or ignored by the state. There were, of course, notable exceptions even at the time.[1] However, despite varying approaches to emigration since then, by the late 1990s all three countries had officially recognized the importance of their emigrant communities, established institutional means of maintaining contact, and actively solicited their engagement for investment on a regular basis. This essay explores the reasons behind the rise of the diaspora as a political and economic force in the Maghreb and the ways in which these three states have chosen to engage with their citizens overseas.

Immediately after independence, emigrants were seen principally as potential political opponents. This was probably most true in Algeria, following the bitter conflicts in France between supporters of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN), which formed the Algerian state upon independence and rival Algerian National Movement (MNA),[2] a situation which continued to the end of the FLN state in 1988. To a lesser extent, this was also the case in Morocco during the repression of the années de plomb from 1958-88[3] and in Tunisia during the Habib Bourguiba regime from 1957 to 1987. The geographical concentration of emigrants from the Maghreb in Europe increased their governments’ concerns about their potential influence. Each government established organizations for emigrants known as amicales. Officially, these organizations were to provide cultural and social support for emigrant workers, and many of them fulfilled this role. Unofficially, they were linked to interior ministries, and in the case of Algerian amicales, directors were appointed directly from Algiers, with the aim of keeping track of the activities of emigrants.[4]

In Algeria the conflict of the 1990s prolonged this period of suspicion of emigrants, and the relationship between the Algerian state and the emigrant community remained tense.[5] In Tunisia the transition from Bourguiba to Ben Ali did not result in a substantial change in political freedom in the country, though Tunisians had begun returning from Europe in more significant numbers than Algerians and Moroccans, and the skills they had acquired led to a positive influence on the economic development of the country.[6] In 1988 the Tunisian government became the first to create an institutional link with emigrants, creating the Office des Tunisiens à l’Etranger. In 1990, the Moroccan government followed, establishing the Foundation Hassan II pour les Marocains Résidants à l’Etranger with the aim of reinforcing links between Morocco and the emigrant community. This also marked the symbolically significant transition from the old label of Travailleurs Marocains à l’Etranger; from Moroccan workers abroad to Moroccan residents abroad, a change in emphasis that was also in use in Tunisia.[7] Four years later, the Algerian government opened the Commission des affaires étrangères et de la communauté algérienne à l’étranger.

The main motivating factor for these changes was the growing economic dependence on remittances. Although migrants may have a range of positive developmental impacts, such as through return migration, remittances have tended to drive public policy in this area. This was most obvious in Morocco, which lacked Algeria’s oil or Tunisia’s thriving economy and had recognized the significance of remittances earlier than its neighbors.[8] In 1972 a survey in France had found that 89% of Moroccan emigrants sent money home.[9] With the exception of small decreases in the early 1990s, remittances to Morocco have continued to grow, year on year, reaching a new high of over $5 billion in 2007, the last year for which figures are available, making it the fourth most significant remittance receiver in the world, in absolute terms.[10] In the same year, Algeria received $2.1 billion and Tunisia received $1.7 billion.[11] This represented 9% of GDP in Morocco, 1.6% in Algeria, and 5% in Tunisia, though this data only includes remittances flowing through official channels, so the totals are likely to be even higher.

Relations with emigrants are now firmly institutionalized in all three countries. This includes ministerial representation. In Morocco, the position of Minister Responsible for the Moroccan Community Resident Abroad has been in place since the mid-1990s. Since 2007, that position has been occupied by Mohammed Ameur. In 2007, the Moroccan government also established a Council of the Moroccan Community Resident Abroad, made up of 50 members elected directly by the emigrant community and a president appointed by the King. This Council has a consultative role in the development of legislation. In Algeria, Djamel Ould Abbes has been Minister of National Solidarity, The Family and the National Community Abroad since 2007. Algeria also established a 56-member Council of the National Community Abroad, for which elections were held in 2009. On the model of the Moroccan system, these elected representatives meet with a number of appointed representatives to examine new legislation. In Tunisia there has been a Minister of Social Security, Solidarity, and Tunisians Abroad since 2005, though Tunisia lacks the elected consultative councils in place in both Algeria and Morocco.

The essential aspect of all of these institutions is their locations within government. The official state relationship with emigrants is now tremendously different from the system of amicales, which had been attached to interior ministries and tasked with observing and controlling emigrants. The current relationship with emigrants is managed by elected independent councils and ministerial-level figures who report directly to the prime ministers in Algeria and Morocco and who have full ministerial status in Tunisia. These institutions were established to assure the welfare of emigrants and to allow them a measure of direct involvement in the affairs of the state. Developments in one state have clearly had some influence on neighboring states, but all respond to the realities of migration faced by all three. The growing recognition of the economic dependence on emigrants in the Maghreb has transformed the institutional structures in both symbolic and practical ways.


[1]1. The unilateral decision by the government of Algeria in 1973 to ban migration to France following a series of racist attacks on Algerians is one example.


[2]. B. Stora, Ils Venaient d’Algérie: l’immigration algérienne en France 1912-1992 (Paris: Fayard, 1992).


[3]. Z. Daoud, Maroc: les années de plomb, 1958-1988, chronique d’une résistance (Paris: Editions Manucius, 2007).


[4]. M. Collyer, “Transnational Political Participation of Algerians in France,” Political Geography, Vol. 25 (2006), pp. 836-45.


[5]. P.A. Silverstein, Algeria in France: Transpolitics, Race and Nation (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004).


[6]. J.P. Cassarino, Tunisian New Entrepreneurs and Their Past Experiences of Migration in Europe: Resource Mobilization, Networks, and Hidden Disaffectation (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007).


[7]. L.A. Brand, Citizens Abroad: Emigration and the State in the Middle East and North Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).


[8]. H. De Haas and R. Plug, “Cherishing the Goose with the Golden Eggs: Trends in Migrant Remittances from Europe to Morocco 1970–2004,” International Migration Review, Vol. 40, No. 3 (2006), pp. 603-34; M. Collyer, M. Cherti, T. Lacroix, and A. van Heelsum, “Migration and Development: the Euro-Moroccan Experience,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Vol. 35, No. 10 (2009), pp. 1555-70.


[9]. M. Charef, La Circulation Migratoire Marocaine: Un pont entre deux rives (Rabat: Edition Sud Contact, 1999).


[10]. Office des Changes, “Envois de fonds effectués par les MRE” (2010), http://www.oc.gov.ma/FluxFinanciers/MRE_Annee.asp.


[11]. United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Report, Algeria and Tunisia (2009).