Kohlhagen, Dominik: The legal world of “economic migrants”: Experiences of Cameroonians in Berlin

“This paper intends to focus on what can be considered as “law” and “legal order” from a migrants’ point of view. Fieldwork carried out in Europe and Africa explores the social relations of a group of Basaa migrants from Southern Cameroon living in Berlin and having migrated to Europe individually over the past 15 years.”

Although migration for economic reasons from the southern to the northern hemisphere has become an important social reality, the scientific approach to this phenomenon is still mainly determined by the established nomenclature of national migration laws which generally simply qualify it as “illegal”. This state law centered perspective leaves little space for an understanding of other social contexts in which the migration takes place.

This paper intends to focus on what can be considered as “law” and “legal order” from a migrants’ point of view. Fieldwork carried out in Europe and Africa explores the social relations of a group of Basaa migrants from Southern Cameroon living in Berlin and having migrated to Europe individually over the past 15 years. All of them have faced different situations of illegality with regard to state migration laws, but most have since succeeded to regularize their presence. Trying to identify the “legal” within their social interactions, this paper aims to underline their involvement in hierarchies and obligations of the African homeland and the importance of communitarian groups in Europe. State law, thus appearing as being only part of a much broader range of legal ties, will be questioned from this pluralistic perspective.

It will be argued that, on the one hand, the experience of exclusion and rejection by state law reinforces the legal involvement within other social fields. On the other hand however, this very specific experience also has an influence on the migrants’ perception of order and hierarchies and their way to redefine the own position in their country of origin. It will be shown that the difficulty to reconcile this perception with the social realities has for most of the migrants undermined their initial return project.

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