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This paper explores how processes of social transformation since the 1980s have impacted on mobility patterns and migration aspirations in Western French Guiana. The French state showed little interest in the development of this scarcely populated region until the arrival of refugees during Suriname’s War of the Interior (1986–1991), which triggered rapid population growth and pressed the state to provide services. With the expansion of formal education, young people’s life aspirations shifted away from rural economic activities and were increasingly mismatched with locally available opportunities. In line with mobility transition theories, these social transformations diversified and expanded mobility patterns: whereas grandparents relied on short-term circular mobility along the Maroni river to perform agricultural activities in the region’s interior, today’s young people engage in permanent rural-urban and overseas migration in order to access educational facilities and economic opportunities. Despite these ‘instrumental’ aspirations for migration, the analysis of 31 interviews revealed that young people have an ‘intrinsic’ preference to stay in Western French Guiana. Many remain closely attached to their familiar socio-cultural environment and families; at the same time, the French state provides basic economic stability which facilitates staying – e.g. through paid professional training and social benefits. In fact, young people find themselves in a situation of ‘in-betweenness’. They cannot achieve their life aspirations locally but do not aspire to migrate. This finding shows that migration aspirations do not automatically increase with levels of ‘development’. Instead, this paper highlights the ambiguous effects of developmental processes, especially state expansion, on people’s migration aspirations.



Working paper


International Migration Institute

Publication Date





1 - 31


Development, state expansion, education, family, social transformations, migration aspirations, mobility transition, French Guiana