“Watch over your brothers and let them settle”

Elia Kazan, America America

Emigrating and immigrating is a four-stage process: leaving, crossing the border, then entering and, finally, moving around. It is an adventure with a large number of determinants (be they political, economic, family-related, or environmental) and one that can be personal or collective, chosen or imposed, involving previous and future generations. It is part of a pattern exceeding the individual in time and building up multipolar geographical areas between country of origin, host country, and those in between, linked together by a network of commercial, fiduciary*, affective, and political relations.

These common characteristics are found in all the immigrant groups present in French Guiana. The region (or ‘La Région’ in French), which is made up of a single department, is now endowed with the representative features of rich countries that make it so attractive (offering access to education, healthcare, social security, and political stability), and this notwithstanding the poor country characteristics also found here (dependency, unequal access to resources, and an informal economy). This ultra-peripheral region (‘Région Ultra-Périphérique’ in French (1999)) is confronted with high levels of immigration, with 37% of the population being immigrants, of whom 31% are from Surinam, 27% from Haiti, and 25% from Brazil. This process is comparable to that found in countries with a high Gross National Income (such as Europe and North America). These movements are part of demographic changes that have been going on over the past three centuries and reveal the identity fault lines within the political representations of local society. They are related to endogenous development strategies confronting representations of progress with economic dependence and unequal access to transfer resources.


Viewed from a historical perspective going back to the 18th century, immigration has been constitutive of French Guianese society given the share of the population arriving in successive waves and the geopolitical and economic functions this has fulfilled.

From the 17th to the 19th century, immigration was used as a means of establishing a geopolitical hold and conquering territory. The Kourou expedition of July 1763 to May 1764, which was intended to populate the colonial Western coast and disputed by the Dutch colony at the time, resulted in the death of 8,500 immigrants. Then there were the prisons between 1852 and 1952, with the enclave at Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni near the border housing 5,000 convicts. Populating so as to integrate was a recurrent phenomenon which culminated in the gold rushes between 1855 and 1930. Whilst the useful coastal areas were occupied, the inland areas became highly valued when gold was first discovered. It was by granting mining concessions to West Indian miners (mainly from Saint Lucia) that the inland areas were colonised under the French Second Empire, thus reinforcing the demographic polarisation in the estuary towns, which acted as relays and trading counters between the placer mines and merchant houses. Despite the failure of the settlement strategies, these trends resulted borders being marked and an administrative network across the colony being established.

Given that the population levels were deemed to be insufficient, the change from the status of a colony to that of a department in 1946 then launched an era where immigration was a key factor in economic development. The planned benefits of settlement were a condition for development, legitimating political integration to the nation. The failure of successive plans between 1952 and 1975 (“Plan Vert” launched by O. Stirn in 1975), made French Guiana dependent upon transfers, the only contributions justifying alignment on the mainland model.

Finally, whilst decentralisation (1982) marked the end of the process of assimilation with the setting up of a local Creole executive power structure, it also led to unplanned immigration from countries in the surrounding region thanks to structural improvement programmes (building roads and bridges). These movements were based on old migration paths (the gold rushes of the nineteenth century and the building of the Space Centre in 1965) and were the corollary of the political and economic crises in high Haiti, Surinam, and the northern States of Brazil. In terms of numbers, French Guiana only received residual flows from these countries (in comparison to movements to Holland or the United States, for example).

Given the small size of its population however, this influx represents between 20% and 30% of immigrants since 1985, leading to alterations in the demographic structure (with an increase in net immigration, and the lowering of the average age of the population due to high birth rates).

Social inequalities and the informal economy

Demographic growth has been partly due to immigration over the past three decades, and is indicative of the depletion of economic resources and the French Guiana’s hyper dependency.

As things stand, GDP per head is the lowest of any of the French regions, standing at 49% of the average French GDP per head. Household income is a better indicator of the standard of living, and is 47% of the average for French regions. This situation is compounded by significant income disparity meaning that one out of every four households lives beneath the poverty line.

With regards to employment, the three public service institutions (the State, territorial, and hospital sectors) account for 44% of jobs and over 50% of the payroll. The majority of the immigrant population is debarred from public sector employment as French nationality is required. Furthermore, the development of underemployment has an impact on the growth of the informal economy, which is both a way of surviving and a means of social ascension. As a result, a dynamic entrepreneurial community has developed with different social norms to that enshrined in French national law. This underground economy is linked to a network of relations (locally known as “Filon”), leading communities to be assertive and close in on themselves.

Immigrants are therefore the adjustment variable of the regional economy (both formal and informal), adapting to changes in the job market that is subject to transfers from France and the EU. Given the poverty, reduced access to resources, and underemployment, the informal economy works as a regulating phenomenon in which migratory flows act as a resource.


The largest influx of migrants in the history of French Guiana mirrors the socioeconomic and socio-political imbalances. Since 1995-2000, it has crystallised into a multifaceted social, economic, and political crisis which occasionally peaks (in 1996, 1999, 2008, and 2009), the effects of which result in groups turning inwards, considering French Guiana to be geopolitically and geo-economically closed to its South American surroundings.

This changing social situation is exploited by local and national politics and conceals a process of “bottom-up” globalisation which began with immigration a dozen years ago. Analysis of financial transfers and trade circuits shows that the circulation of immigrants is used as resource for both the economy and identity. Migratory movements and trade dynamics project French Guiana into a global space beyond the borders with Surinam and Brazil. The immigrants form diasporas from Haiti (Haiti-USA/Canada-Mainland France), China (USA-Hong-Kong-mainland China), the South Caribbean (Surinam-Holland), the Andes (Peru-Bolivia-Spain) and Africa (Togo-Benin-Côte d’Ivoire). Taking these recent movements into account is of major interest for development strategy, given that the region will be acquiring institutional autonomy with regard to multilateral economic relations.

Who are the asylum seekers?

In 2009, 1382 people who had migrated to French Guiana requested the protection of France due to persecution in their country of origin (OFPRA, 2009). These are asylum seekers.

Amongst this group 42% were Haitians, 15% Dominicans, 12% Peruvians, 7% Colombians, and 7% from Guinea-Bissau. The remaining 16% mainly came from the Caribbean, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa. The French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (originally ‘Office français de protection des réfugiés et apatrides’, or OFPRA) and the French National Court for Right of Asylum (originally ‘Cour nationale du droit d’asile’, or CNDA) granted refugee status to 2.7% of applicants in 2009.

The procedure for requesting asylum in French Guiana lasts an average of two years: from the moment when the request is filed to the verdict. During this two-year period, asylum seekers must pay for accommodation, food, and clothing with at most a lump sum of 300 Euros from the State and they are not allowed to work. This situation is specific to French Guiana where the national system of support facilities for asylum seekers does not exist. It is up to the French State to provide minimum levels of support in conformity with the European directive on the reception of asylum seekers (16/02/2005). Is French Guiana a place where there is no right to asylum?

Further reading

- PIANTONI F, 2009, L’enjeu migratoire en Guyane: une géographie politique, Ibis Rouge éditions, Matoury, 440 pages.


- AFD, IEDOM, INSEE (June 2008) Guyane. Un développement sous contraintes, Cayenne, 79 pages

- Hommes et Migrations no. 1274 (July – August 2008) L’espace Caribéen. Institutions et migrations depuis le XVIIe siècle, Paris, 210 pages