CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 According to the latest report published by Campus France (2020), the number of international students in France is still increasing, but at a slower rate than the world average. On the other hand, the attractiveness of the country continues to increase for students from Africa and the Middle East. Moreover, in 2020, sub-Saharan Africa became the leading area of origin for applications, ahead of North Africa and the Middle East. France is both the sixth largest host country and the sixth largest country of departure for students. Universities continue to account for two thirds of international students, although their recruitment is declining, particularly at the Master’s and PhD levels (Ibid.). Finally, 14% of students were foreigners in 2020, half of whom were enrolled in bachelor’s degrees, whereas they represented almost half of the doctoral students. These data underline the weight of this category of students in France and the issues involved.

2 In addition, the French government decided at the end of 2018 to implement an attractiveness strategy for international students, called “Welcome to France”. It aims to simplify the administrative procedures for obtaining a visa for study and to create new scholarships, but the flagship measure of this plan also consists in increasing registration fees for non-EU students (Jamid et al., 2020). The decree of April 2019 which officialized the implementation of “Welcome to France” would not only bring about geographical differentiation, but also implied reinforcing the rationale of social selection. This could “more broadly endorse the idea of an education market dictated by competition and performance, in which priority is given in particular to the resources that families are prepared to mobilize for their children’s education” (Ibid.).

3 Although international students remain little-known actors of migratory globalization, migration scholars are increasingly interested in the phenomenon of international student migration and the number of publications on the subject is increasing (Gillabert et al., 2017). Both the opportunities offered by the presence of international students and the difficulties they may encounter underline the need for the universities to reflect on the rationales of inclusion, differentiation and specific support, especially regarding learning the French language. Support measures for allophone students exist in primary and secondary education, but nothing is offered in higher education.

4 It is true that the inclusion of ethical, diversity and inclusion issues among the pedagogical fundamentals of teaching remains a challenge that must be overcome by universities (Bruna et al., 2016). However, the surveys devoted to this subject do not look into the cultural diversity offered by these students and the cosmopolitanism that could result from it (Baruel et al., 2020).

5 However, the health crisis linked to COVID-19 has highlighted the singularities of the university trajectories of international students, which are more often marked by economic difficulties and difficulties in acculturating to the university world, distance from family and feelings of suffering or even depression (Dequiré, 2007). However, this health crisis has also highlighted the plurality of migratory paths among those educated in France. Although this is an “unprecedented” crisis (Belghith et al., 2020b), not all students have been affected in the same way or with the same intensity. Those who are most independent from their families, whose situation is characterized by distance from their families and the material and financial support they can provide, are among those most severely affected by the epidemic, both economically and psychologically (Ibid.). Therefore, in this empirical contribution, we examine the impact of the health crisis on the migratory trajectories and experiences of international students in France. How did they experience successive periods of lockdown, when those closest to them in terms of relationships were the furthest away geographically, and those closest to them geographically were also most often unreachable? This appraisal leads us to examine the experience of the health crisis of international students through the issue of access: access to others, whether online (family and friends in the country of origin) or offline (friends and acquaintances in France), but also access to studies, which remain for these young people the main reason for arriving in the host country.

6 First of all, we recall the fact that the student’s experience of studying in another country clearly diverges according to their level of study, their place of residence, and according to whether or not they were able to return to their own country during this period. Returning to the country of origin, which is quite rare, especially for African students, reassured these students and restored their energy. We will then see that communication technologies played a major role in managing immobility. “Digital mobility”, particularly through digital social networks and instant messaging, appears to be a communication space primarily reserved for maintaining ties with family and friends. In this sense, communication technologies have made it possible to mitigate, according to a rationale of compensatory economy (Cardon, 2014), the feeling of loneliness, concern for the family and isolation. These same tools have also brought to the fore strong inequalities in access to connection, coupled with numerous barriers to being reachable and the absence, sometimes, of the right to disconnect. This is apparent at the same time as the emergence of a general trend to stress the tension between the confining and liberating nature of digital devices. Finally, we consider the health crisis as an opportunity for international students to examine their migration path, between bifurcations, renunciations and new horizons (Gohard-Radenkovic, 2017). Some have clearly become aware of their need to return permanently to their country at the end of their studies or not, while others, on the contrary, affirm that this crisis has enabled them to understand that their country of origin would not be able to provide them with a future, or make the most of their skills (Soon, 2010). The health crisis thus seems to have had a revealing effect on the diversity of management of migratory paths, but also strong impacts on these same paths. Rather than a lost year, it would perhaps be more accurate to speak of a year of assessment and reflection, in terms of project, environment and relationship with the world.


7 In this contribution, we relied on the data collected in the second phase of the Transicovid research, [1] which was initiated by an online questionnaire between June and November 2020. This part of our research draws its originality from the joint analyses of the objective and subjective experience of the health crisis, since our questionnaire survey is composed of both closed questions and a substantial number of open questions. 2,101 students responded to our survey, of which 131 were international students.

8 We have decided to use the term international students here rather than foreign students, because, according to UNESCO, the terms “international students” or “internationally mobile students” define “persons studying in a foreign country of which they are not permanent residents”. The UIS (UNESCO Institute for Statistics) prefers this concept to that of a foreign student, i.e. a student who is not a citizen of the country in which he or she is studying, since measures of citizenship vary widely from one country to another, making international comparison difficult (CAPRES, 2019). This concept indeed reflects the idea of mobility and migratory trajectory, as it is possible, for example, to be a foreign student born in France. The following characteristics would therefore be specific to international students: they do not have the nationality of the host country, they are not permanent members of the host country and they have completed their secondary education in a country other than the host country (Terrier, 2009). This concept of the international student is not fully satisfactory, however, as international students are often required to return to their home country, which is not always the case for the students, particularly African students, we interviewed.

9 An initial analysis of the results showed that the experience of the first lockdown of these students was quite different from that of French students. Regarding this quantitative aspect, we also relied on the OVE survey conducted by Belghith and his team (2020a). The latter, which seemed to us to be one of the most accomplished surveys at the time of writing this article, also highlighted the diversity of experiences of confined students according to different socio-demographic factors, including the fact of being born abroad and of coming to study in France.

10 Subsequently, we wished to deepen the results of these quantitative surveys by proposing an online survey reserved for international students and essentially composed of open-ended questions, during which we collected the answers of seventy-five individuals between February and March 2021. In view of the results obtained, we felt it was important to add a qualitative component in order to deepen understanding of the experiences and feelings evoked in the open-ended questions. Thus, our survey was completed by conducting twenty semi-directive interviews with international students enrolled in universities in several French cities [2]. We decided to target African students in particular, who are the most represented in France. These interviews were conducted between March and May 2021, in order to go into more detail regarding the key findings of the survey. Additional details on the profiles of the individuals interviewed are available in the sociography available in the appendix (see Table 1). [3]

Lockdown Means Economic and Learning Difficulties, but also Isolation

11 Most of the studies carried out on international students highlight trajectories that are often marked by a number of difficulties, whether material (financial, housing, etc.), relational or academic (Dequiré, 2007), which are often highly cumulative.

Unique Containment Conditions

12 Although international students are, in general, relatively “privileged” and often benefit from the financial support of their families in their migration (Brooks and Waters, 2010), their financial conditions have sometimes been heavily affected by the health crisis. Those in our sample seem to have been much more affected than their French counterparts by the deterioration of their financial situation, which was already weakened by the distance from their family and the financial support it can provide. A survey conducted by the OVE (Observatoire de la Vie Étudiante) (Belghith et al., 2020a) on confined students underlines the fact that international students have been the most affected by a loss of resources due to the crisis. Nearly one in two international students (47%) report having experienced greater difficulties than usual, compared to only 12% of French students. Among our respondents, half report having lost some of their resources due to the crisis:


The main difficulty is finances: due to the fact that the working time is really limited, my finances have really taken a hit with this crisis.” (Yao, twenty-eight year-old master’s student, born in Ivory Coast)

14 This reduction in resources has first of all had an impact on the material conditions of the students, who frequently stress that they have had to limit their expenses:


Since I don’t work anymore, I’m at home and that means that with my salary I can only manage to pay my rent, pay the insurance and others, so I don’t have any money left to properly ensure my needs.” (Seydou, twenty-three year-old undergraduate student, born in Mali)

16 On this point, the OVE survey (Ibid.) reveals a significant difference between French and international students. Nearly a quarter of the latter (23.1%) said they had restricted their diet for financial reasons, compared to only 4% of French students. The impact of health restrictions on economic activity and the world of work was significant for students, and particularly for foreign students. The widespread use of telecommuting, the closure of non-essential businesses and, in particular, of establishments traditionally employing students (restaurants, shopping centers, etc.) have led a good number of them to cease their salaried activity altogether or to drastically reduce their working hours. Other students deplored having been slowed down, or even stopped, in their job search:


Financially, it’s a bit complicated, very complicated in fact because there are no jobs, there are no student jobs and all the restaurants are closed, everything is closed. There is no work, there is a little help from parents who are in the country, but there is also the crisis there and so they do their best, but it is not totally that.” (Kodjo, twenty-two year-old undergraduate student, born in Benin)

18 The reduction in financial support provided by families, often themselves affected by the crisis, is also identified as an aggravating factor, as Koffi explains:


That’s the crucial side of this crisis, the economic aspect... Those who were helping us, it’s because they were working that they were helping us, I’m thinking especially of my brothers for example, with this crisis where everything is at a standstill, they are on short-time working, it’s complicated. What we used to receive is considerably reduced.” (Koffi, thirty year-old master student, born in Togo)

20 Other factors of an administrative nature (e.g., longer delays in renewing a residence permit authorizing access to employment) or institutional factors (e.g., delays in the allocation of certain financial aid) have also weakened their financial stability.

Learning Hindered by Distance Learning

21 Beyond the strictly financial aspects, the issue of learning conditions has been particularly complicated for many international students. While the health crisis has had a significant influence on students’ schooling in general, particularly in terms of motivation, concentration and work overload often linked to distance learning (Barthou et al., 2021), international students seem to have been even more affected. As Coulon and Paivandi (2008: 34) pointed out, studying abroad can be like a “cluster of confusing ruptures”, due to the multiplicity of changes that students face. These changes relate to three main dimensions: firstly, communicational, due to a partial mastery of the language; secondly, relational, in their links with their peers and teachers; and thirdly, pedagogical, referring to the adaptation to the French education system, which differs from that of their country of origin. In fact, the introduction of distance learning has had a strong impact on these three dimensions, depriving international students in part of the communicational and relational aspects, which has had a knock-on effect on the dimension of adaptation to the educational system and teaching practices. The question of difficulties in understanding the lessons reveals a strong distinction between international and French students, with 55% of the former declaring that they had encountered major difficulties compared to 36.4% of the latter (see Graph 1).

Graph 1: Difficulties in Understanding Lessons According to Students’ Origin

Figure 0

Graph 1: Difficulties in Understanding Lessons According to Students’ Origin

Source: Data from the Transicovid research (2020).

22 It should be pointed out first of all that understanding the pedagogical organization of curricula and teaching activities can cause some international students to lose their bearings and find it difficult to adapt (Cohen, 2001). The introduction of “educational continuity”, in a hurry and without preparation, seems to have amplified this loss of reference points. The main explanatory factor put forward by international students to explain their learning difficulties is the physical distance from professors, which drastically reduces interaction:


As I never knew my teacher, I can’t make a good interpersonal relationship really, for that I don’t trust to do the questions.” (Master’s student, age not given, born in Mexico)

24 For some, this distance was accompanied by a lack of follow-up and support from teachers. Many point to a lack of supervision and adaptability on the part of certain teachers who do not take into account certain weaknesses of international students, in particular their poorer command of the written and spoken French language and, in particular, of a “learned” and technical language (Coulon and Paivandi, 2008):


Some teachers don’t understand that it is more complicated for some students than others in distance learning.” (Mawuko, thirty year-old PhD student, born in Togo)

26 International students also point out the disparities in the pace of learning, which means a greater workload to take on:


You have to be careful with the accents of the teachers, the vocabulary at the beginning was a bit hot, now it’s getting better as I go along [...] when the teacher speaks, it’s not easy with the notes. They are so fast compared to you that you have to do research after class, go to the library and get the books to be at the same level as the others because note-taking is not the same for me as for the students who have been here since... That’s a bit like that, so I have to double my efforts to be at the same level as the others.” (Issa, twenty-seven year-old undergraduate student, born in Mali)

28 It should be added here that teaching approaches and relations between teachers and pupils can differ greatly from country to country and geographical area to area. Some systems favour a participatory mode of teaching in which teachers have an accompanying role, beyond the simple transmission of knowledge. The French case, on the other hand, is more focused on academic ritualism (Felouzis, 1997), a more structured and directive didactic approach, which requires a particular effort of adaptation (Cohen, 2001). It is therefore important, beyond the specific characteristics of international students, to consider the weight of the university model and the pedagogies used in the difficulties encountered by most of our respondents, especially during a health crisis.

29 Finally, the weaker interaction with peers, which favours a logic of mutual academic support, also worked against the international students, particularly those who had recently arrived in France. Many of them regret not having been able to benefit from the help of their classmates to understand certain lessons. Digital interactions, which are less spontaneous than face-to-face ones, do not make up for the lack of physical contact:


In face-to-face courses, it was already difficult and there in distance learning where you are alone, you can’t even ask for help from a friend, then it becomes a bit more complicated and sometimes we are forced to give up because you stopped at a level where you couldn’t unlock yourself, so you give up.” (Ousmane, thirty year-old master student, born in Burkina Faso)

31 For some students, the difficulties of adapting to the university system may have been accompanied by a feeling of illegitimacy, and sometimes even inferiority compared to other students. Several students explained that they were sometimes reluctant to ask questions for fear of being in trouble or stigmatized:


Sometimes you get lost in the teacher’s explanations. And you’re not alone, so the fact that you have to ask the teacher again and again because you don’t understand, it’s like you’re stupid. Sometimes I felt a little bit in trouble with that.” (Mawuko)

33 Teachers who adapted their teaching or paid special attention to international students helped to alleviate this feeling of illegitimacy:


Mrs. X suggested a teacher, Mr. Y. He helps me with articles and everything, gives me the basics, the main stuff, important stuff, and I’ll try to do the big task, understand, how to do research and everything. It really helped me.” (Safiya, twenty-seven year-old undergraduate student, born in Algeria)

From Feelings of Loneliness to Suicidal Thoughts

35 Student sociability is organized in three main ways (Jellab, 2011): “academic” sociability, in which belonging to a group of students is seen as a support; “extracurricular” sociability, in the sense that it is based on the sharing of common time (leisure, cultural activities or activism); and “mixed” sociability, which covers both the academic and extracurricular dimensions and allows for membership in several groups. These different socializing bodies were suspended during the health crisis, which may have had quite strong negative effects on all the students. However, our survey revealed that these difficulties were cushioned during the (re)lockdown by the family, home and rural or peri-urban environment.

36 While recent studies on the situation of confined students show that the vast majority of French students returned home as soon as the lockdown was announced, in order to settle into a favorable material environment and to avoid social isolation (Barthou et al., 2021), the situation of international students appears to be quite specific on this point. Three quarters of our respondents were in fact confined alone, most often in particularly cramped accommodation, such as a studio or university room. The surface area of these dwellings rarely exceeds fifteen square meters, and they are often located in an urban environment, thus severely restricting the possibilities of access to green spaces. However, several studies have recently insisted on the statistical correspondence between the two variables of the experience of lockdown and the size or configuration of the dwelling, among which we will mention the work of Fijalkow and Roudil (2020), but also surveys by INSEE [4] and the association Qualitel [5] in partnership with IPSOS. The OVE survey (Belghith et al., 2020b) also highlighted major differences in the type of accommodation occupied according to the nationality of the students. In France, more than three quarters of French students (76.2%) spent the lockdown in a house, but this was the case for less than a quarter of international students (24.2%).

37 The size of the accommodation also had a direct impact on the academic working conditions of international students. The size of their accommodation did not always allow them to have a space specifically dedicated to work, and many of them deplored the material conditions that were not conducive to study. Indeed, they regret having to share, in the same, often uncomfortable, place, work space and private life:


Now I’m in a CROUS apartment, but I also lived in another studio, it was a hotel apartment. So you see lots of changes, but never with the right atmosphere to work, it was always a disaster: me, the suitcases, a little bit small space, the same one where I eat, where I sleep, where I work too.” (Ana, master student, twenty-four years old, born in Brazil)

39 The size and difficulties associated with housing also seem to have accentuated the feeling of isolation and loneliness of the international students confined alone, which is further fueled by the distance from their families and the health restrictions. The issues of loneliness and lockdown were indeed central to the comments of the interviewees and constituted a central dimension of their experience of lockdown:


Inevitably a loneliness has set in a bit, that is to say a social distancing between even his friends, his companions, in addition to his family who are not in the same town, so I am experiencing it [the crisis] very badly.” (Yao)

41 Several factors seem to have contributed to the feeling of isolation felt by international students. For example, the level of education drew a line between the most highly educated individuals, who declared themselves to be more serene overall in the face of the crisis than those with a bachelor’s degree (53.3% of master’s and doctoral students compared to 30.7% of others). The date of arrival in France also seemed to affect the experience of the health crisis. Newcomers, and more specifically, those who arrived during the crisis, reported a much greater sense of isolation than those who have been living in France for several years, due to their inability to form social relationships:


I’ve been alone since the beginning of the lockdown, I haven’t had any contact, I don’t know anyone since I arrived five or six months ago. It’s not the time to meet or have contact with others, I don’t have the chance, that’s it [laughs]. I don’t have the chance to make a meeting or have a contact with this existing society.” (Safiya)

43 Faced with this strong feeling of loneliness and isolation, the reactions of international students were quite different. The lack of sociability and social ties led some individuals to adopt transgressive behavior with regard to health regulations. Some respondents explained that they had thought several times of going out to meet friends at the risk of being punished, as Ilyes (master’s student, twenty-seven years old, born in Algeria) pointed out:


There are people who have been confined on their own, that was my case. Without exaggerating the first lockdown, I almost lost my mind. Sometimes I said to myself, I’m going to go out, I don’t care if I meet a policeman and he gives me a fine, I’m going to accept it. It was really unbearable.

45 He explained that he broke the rules and attended a party:


We needed this, we weren’t allowed to because of the restrictions, but we couldn’t not do it knowing that I may not see them until September.

47 Finally, others said that they had regular exchanges with other students, often international ones as well, in order to cope with this period of isolation. The fact that they lived in a university residence may have facilitated this proximity and these exchanges.

48 Nevertheless, most of our respondents said that they had complied with health regulations. Among them, this feeling of isolation was not experienced with the same intensity. For many, this feeling of loneliness was managed through digital technology and online family ties. However, it may have generated psychological difficulties, as Koffi points out:


There are also psychological difficulties [...]. It is difficult to see each other and you find yourself alone in your room which makes morale very low.

50 This psychological fragility was expressed in different ways, with some explaining that they felt particularly stressed, anxious or distressed, while others declared themselves depressed. Others said they were afraid that their peers would put their lives in danger:


There were some people who really couldn’t handle the lockdown. We tried to keep in touch just to avoid weird things. Sometimes people can do things that they later regret. We tried to stay in touch to avoid isolation.” (Ilyes)

52 Or have had suicidal thoughts themselves:


Psychologically, we were not well in the head, we think of our family who is far away from us and I admit that if I had not had my family I think I might have done the worst.” (Moudjib, master student, twenty-seven years old, born in Benin)

54 The issue of suicide, more or less explicitly addressed, came up in many interviews. This can be explained, on the one hand, by the fact that they are students, which is consistent with the results of other French surveys, in particular the one conducted by the University of Lorraine (Essadek and Rabeyron, 2020) on the mental health of 8,004 students, which showed that 14.8% of them had had self-destructive or suicidal thoughts. Other foreign studies have also shown that student status was an important risk factor for exposure to depressive risk, with employed status protecting actors more clearly (González-Sanguino et al., 2020). On the other hand, foreigner status also seems to have played a role. Indeed, in our total sample, suicidal thoughts came up much more often in the interviews conducted with international students than with other students. This does not mean that all international students experienced suffering, but that the situation was more difficult for the most isolated, the most precarious and the least supported. Social isolation has been shown in other surveys (Wathelet et al., 2020) to be an important risk factor in the prevalence of suicidal thoughts, stress, distress, depression and high anxiety.

55 The importance of these results could lead the university and other places that receive international students to better think, collectively, about their reception and support. Finally, the lockdown had a revealing effect on deeper sociological trends and highlighted the fact that international students are hardly the object of specific measures, which, in an inclusive logic, could enable them to carry out their projects successfully and serenely. In the end, the strong links for these students were mostly digital links.

Immigration-Continuity in a Time of Health Crisis

56 For the vast majority of already connected populations, the various lockdowns imposed during the health crisis played a role in the amount of time spent daily on digital tools and platforms (Barthou and Bruna, 2021). This increase in “screen time” has several explanations, most of which are cumulative. The strong restrictions on travel that led to a feeling of “lockdown” at home, the new forms of work/study organization oriented towards the “all remote” and the perception of the smartphone as the only tangible opening to the outside world, seem to be largely responsible for this hyper-connection. Also, in the case of international students, because their connection responds to a duty of presence towards the family circle, this overuse of already very time-consuming tools was further exacerbated.

The Omnipresence of the Connection or the Difficult Self-Regulation of Practices

57 To understand the experience of the health crisis among international students, we need to look at the particular context of lockdown for this specific population. While we observed in a large-scale survey that most French students chose to live together again — or to live together for a long time — during this unprecedented period (Ibid.), our qualitative survey revealed a very different daily life for those who did not have such possibilities. In this context, they did not only perceive digital tools as a guarantee for maintaining social ties (Diminescu, 2005), but also as an escape from the daily gloom. In this regard, screen time is not a uniform time. The international students thus revealed a plurality of practices that were not exclusive to them, such as “playing video games” (Ilyes), “surfing social networks” (Ousmane) or “being on Netflix until late at night” (Demba, twenty-three year-old master’s student, born in Mali). Ana, on the other hand, was able to ensure continuity in her psychological support while maintaining the link with a trusted person in her country of origin: “I had stopped my sessions because I was in France [...]. Thanks to a software program, I do my sessions online with this person I trust”. Keeping in touch with the family at a distance remained one of the main uses.

58 These connection times sometimes appeared excessive for our respondents, particularly for Hawa (twenty-one year-old Bachelor’s student, born in Mali) who said she spent “almost all [her] time with my smartphone [which] must represent eighteen hours a day”. Similarly, for Demba, the mobile phone is an extension of his body, and he makes sure to keep it close to him: “I can use it at the moment and then I put it down for a few minutes and I use it and so on. As soon as I wake up, I have it next to me in my hand”. For international students, moments of study, break, leisure, contact with family and friends, information gathering, self-doubt and self-construction; in short, most of daily life seems to have revolved around digital tools and platforms during this health crisis. Above all, some of these temporalities sometimes overlap with others. While distance learning courses are characterized by possibilities of “present disappearance” (Gergen, 2002), of being there without being there, camera and microphone cut off, study time is punctuated by distractions:


While the teacher is writing something, you can’t just watch like that, you have to do something else [... ]. So I’m on social networks. Not to lie to you, sometimes I just log on and leave my PC, I’m there but I’m not.” (Ilyes)

60 Our Transicovid survey shows that these strategies seem to be common to a majority of students, whether or not they were born in France. The diasporic link is sometimes also an additional opportunity to divert attention: time devoted to the family can thus encroach on school time. In the same way, the fact that lessons are held at a distance no longer allows students to meet up, exchange ideas or get to know each other during informal occasions, which again particularly affects international students, who are often alone at home:


With the lockdown all the time you are at home, even during classes and you feel isolated, you have no one so every time you connect and talk with family and with friends.” (Issa)

62 The importance of connection in a rationale of integration, accompanied by an injunction to be reachable, logically appears even stronger when the university can no longer play its role as a body of socialization:


During this moment of crisis, we need social ties even more: to cut oneself off from social networks is to exclude oneself from humanity.” (Koffi)

64 Diminescu recently explained that once equipped with his smartphone, the “connected migrant” had the possibility of “switching instantly between several worlds of existence” and thus appeared “closer to the figure of the navigator than that of the uprooted” (Diminescu and Guido, 2019: 205). But behind this metaphor, which translates the opportunity offered to the migrant to have their “home” in their pocket, which is otherwise debatable (Barthou, 2019a), above all lies the problem of distancing oneself from digital tools in one’s daily life. Because multiple activities are directly linked to the use of digital tools, international students particularly insisted on the need to be connected, though they did not all give the same reasons to explain this. Unsurprisingly, Demba mentioned the reasons of distance learning and family ties, but above all insisted on the loss of information and its consequences on access to employment in the case of non-connection:


With crisis, the use of the Internet was not a choice, but a necessity. [...]. It’s essential to have it, otherwise you lose the information. Imagine, in relation to the offers, it is the one who has access to the information who benefits from the offer. You have to stay informed, it’s very important.

66 Hawa justified her connection by the lack of alternatives in a confined daily life:


It’s the only tool that distracts me a bit. I’m all alone so it’s just the phone that I communicate with, I really need it. If I don’t use the phone, I’m just sitting here doing nothing.

68 Here she joined Ilyes, for whom the intensive use of tools is also the result of a lack of choice:


Yet I’m not really the kind of person who’s addicted to that sort of thing. It’s just... we don’t have a choice, we have to pass the time or we’ll lose our minds.

70 In times of lockdown and in order to fight against the weight of loneliness, the smartphone thus proved to be, perhaps even more than before, a precious daily ally for international students. The threefold need to be connected to others, reachable and informed during this health crisis is coupled with the need to be elsewhere, for leisure time and introspection, which, once again, often involves the use of screens.

Barriers to Disconnection in Confined Everyday Life

71 If, for the various reasons mentioned above, international students declared that they have significantly increased their time spent in front of screens, they did not fail to mention that they had already thought of voluntarily disconnecting from these technologies. The “connected migrants” thus testified to this reflexive logic of temporarily setting aside time-consuming devices which, by force of circumstance, heavily punctuate their confined daily lives. However, our analyses are in line with the work already presented in the literature on this subject: in reality, the desire to disconnect is only rarely accompanied by the actual implementation of this distancing (Jauréguiberry, 2014; Bruna, 2014). Our respondents first emphasized the impossibility of total disconnection in times of health crisis: the everydayness of connection appears to be a non-negotiable condition for the continuation of studies. Sena (a twenty-six year-old PhD student, born in Togo) even added that disconnection seemed to him antinomic to the status of student:


No student can cut themselves off from digital to study because being a student is still about trying to understand the principles we teach in class and on the internet we have thousands of libraries.

73 Family incentives to connect daily seem even more prevalent during this health crisis:


When I don’t call my mother, she doesn’t like it. She tells me that I’m alone in France, that it’s a complicated situation, that she still sees me as a little girl and she needs to know if I’m okay.” (Selena, a twenty-four year-old master’s student, born in Spain)

75 Some of our respondents did manage to disconnect and justified this choice to their families by the need to refocus on themselves or the need to focus on revisions during exam periods. However, for some respondents, these attempts to distance themselves were interrupted by the family circle. Seydou explained that he disconnected himself, but only for forty-eight hours: “After that, I couldn’t hold on, I gave up because my uncle was calling me and my mother was worried.” As she prepared for her exams, Hawa’s pause was quickly concluded by reproaches:


My mother got angry, she told me that I didn’t miss her anymore, that now that I’m in France I don’t think about her anymore [...], she reproached me for not sending her a message at least once a day. I told her that it would not happen again.

77 Above all, the young woman has since been subjected to a “duty to connect” to provide a response to a quest for parental reassurance, a phenomenon we have increasingly observed in the new monitoring practices related to digital parenthood (Bruna, 2022). Nevertheless, the parental need for daily reassurance is arguably even more important at the time of the health crisis, as Europe is among the continents most affected by COVID-19. Until now, international students appeared to be more worried about their parents because of the situation in their country of origin, especially for African students, than the other way round. This shift in concern may be explained, according to Kodjo, by the media coverage of the worsening health situation in Western countries:


It’s true that there’s a crisis in Benin, but it’s not the same as in France when you look at the numbers a little bit and I know they’re scared for me.

79 More often than not, the failure to disconnect is explained by the centrality of the smartphone in the confined daily lives of our survey respondents. Ousmane warned that the device would have to be “ripped from his hands” for him to disconnect, after which he “would fall into depression”. Moreover, Safiya “wouldn’t feel alive” if she remained “unconnected to family and classes”. Ana, on the other hand, wanted to disconnect and implemented strategies, often unsuccessful, to achieve this:


I put the laptop in a night mode, it doesn’t show what’s going on for a period of time. And every time I do, I keep trying to look and I see all the notifications. I always feel like I’m going to miss something.

81 Beyond this frenzy of requests to which she feels obliged to respond, the young woman also reports this “fear of missing” [6] closely linked to the injunctions of permanent contactability. It is in this respect that Seydou warned of the potential consequences of disconnection:


I had a buddy in Mali, we went through a lot. He passed away. We had a WhatsApp group over there with some buddies and they told me. Imagine if there was no social media, I could go a month without learning that my buddy is gone.

83 Although they are rarer, some respondents distanced themselves from transnational communications. They tempered, or even rejected, the everydayness of the parental bond and established their own rules:


It was more like they wanted to know how I was doing, but I didn’t have time to answer them every day. Since I warned them that it would be difficult with my training, they had no problem with it.” (Mawuko)

85 In our interviews, it seems that this control of family interaction time concerned individuals who have been living in France for several years, rather than newcomers for whom the family represents a necessary, although not the only moral support, on a daily basis.

Living with the Family During the Health Crisis

86 The role of digital devices in this possible relational continuity with the physically distant was regularly put forward (Diminescu, 2005; Nedelcu, 2009). This was also reflected in our survey:


Digital technology has allowed me to be able to have my parents online, to be able to chat live with them, so, it has been an asset for me during these moments of crisis.” (Issouf, master student, twenty-eight years old, born in Burkina Faso)

88 But keeping a link with the family is not the only element that justifies the frequency of transnational communications: respondents to our survey above all mentioned having found support from their loved ones: “It helped me psychologically, it helped me to overcome, to bear all that” (Kodjo).

89 In this atypical period, we note that communicative exchanges with the country of origin were prioritized in the discourse of some respondents, while communicative exchanges with their peers, living close to home, seemed to take a back seat: “People write to me but I don’t answer. I really write to my close family,” says Mawuko. While this nuances findings from recent work (Mattelart, 2019), health restrictions are likely to be partly responsible. Concerns in this period of uncertainty were more directed towards distant family, which the closure of borders made even more unreachable. Nevertheless, it appeared that our respondents sometimes transgressed certain restrictions and organized clandestine gatherings, for example “on Saturday evenings, to play cards [...], to discuss and cook like back home” explained Seydou about a group of Malian students of which he is a member. This weekly ritualization of meetings with other young people of the same origin may reflect a feeling of nostalgia, particularly for the culinary arts, but also a search for a sense of attachment to common values that international students find difficult to find in France.

90 When it came to contacting the family, international students often face various material issues. For example, our African respondents were confronted with the digital divide in its most geographical sense, namely the existence of strong disparities between a North and a South in Internet access (Beaude, 2012). Safiya, for example, said that it was preferable to wait for certain times to call her relatives: “There are times when it’s good and others when it’s bad, so when it’s good we turn on the camera and go talk. [...] But when there’s a bad connection, we stay in the cycle of: Hello? Yes? Hello?”. Moudjib added that he sometimes had to avoid making video calls in order to save bandwidth, and was fatalistic: “It’s not every time I get to see my family or friends on video.” The difference between audio and video also lies in the opportunity to see each other despite the distance: “I really like to see faces,” Selena explained, while Mawuko admitted that he mostly made video calls “so that [his] sisters can see [his] son grow up.” This echoes the work of Stéphane Vial, who emphasized the value of images in communicative exchanges and in the perception of the other through sociotechnical devices (2013). For international students, it is therefore a matter of underlining the rarity and value of such moments, which are indicative of profound disparities in the maintenance of the social link with the family. The impossibility of making video calls marks the absence of the body of loved ones, who cannot be seen growing and evolving, moving and expressing themselves: an element essential to communication can thus be rendered inaccessible to international students depending on the quality of the connection.

91 For some French students who have returned to live with their parents, the lack of physical contact outside the parental home is a central concern. In the case of international students, and more particularly Africans, a good quality video link can already be a privilege that they cannot enjoy on a daily basis. Here, the quality of the Internet connection on the one hand, and the link with the family on the other, appear to be inseparable. Poor connection seemed to generate a certain frustration among our respondents, who stressed both the need to get in touch with their loved ones and the feeling of powerlessness that emerged from such a situation: “We are frustrated, we have no more power, we can’t do anything, we are limited” (Koffi). Individuals also come to develop strategies to signify their presence. Yao knew that his parents and sister did not always have a connection around their home, but he called them “even if they were out of the connection zone, just to let them know they are alive”.

92 For international students, the health crisis also highlighted the advantages as well as the limits of the co-presence made possible by digital tools. In the discourse of our respondents, this was most evident in the intense moments they were able to participate in, but did not feel they had fully shared. Hawa recalled her sister’s wedding, which she attended via a video call during the first lockdown:


The fact that I wasn’t there had a big impact on me. I would have liked to have been part of the wedding preparations and to have been part of the wedding and party like the others. The phone helped me get through it. But of course, it’s not the same.

94 The use of digital devices is seen here as a lesser evil: the young woman will keep an image of this event that she “almost lived” despite the distance. But this insistence on the present moment also reveals that she did not participate in the “before”, i.e. the preparations for the wedding, and that she will not attend the “after” either, since the link stops abruptly once the computer is switched off. This long-distance participation in family life, cut off from the highlights that cannot be shared, therefore has tangible limits. The possibility of navigating between two worlds (Diminescu, 2005) hardly makes one forget, on the one hand, that the family remains well and truly absent from physical reality (Barthou, 2019b) and, on the other hand, that this same reality is often synonymous with loneliness and isolation in this context of lockdown. For his part, Ilyes experienced his sister’s marriage asynchronously:


During the wedding, they [my family] made videos, they showed me what they did and everything, it’s like I was there, but I wasn’t.

96 He too insisted on the “as if, bringing a nuance to discourses often focused on what is invented and experimented in digital spaces, and not on what is still missing.

The Impact of the Health Crisis on Migration Trajectories and Life Projects

97 While the health crisis had considerable impact on the daily lives of international students, it also seems to have had quite strong repercussions on their migratory trajectory, whether it completely called into question the initial project, modified it or, conversely, greatly reinforced it.

Lack of Atmosphere and Conviviality

98 Lockdown was naturally an ordeal for all French people, but in the case of international students, and in particular Africans, the feeling of lockdown was amplified by a life concentrated in an often very small and cramped space. Moreover, the distance from the cultural model of the country of origin was strongly accentuated during this health crisis:


You know, at the beginning it was difficult. I just arrived in France this year, last September. Back home in Mali, we’re not used to this at all, being locked up at home. We’re not really affected. Coming here and being locked up at home, at first it wasn’t easy.” (Seydou)

100 In addition to the physical borders linked to lockdown and health regulations, the international students also experienced a symbolic border. They often testified to the closed nature and strong individualism of French society:


I like to chat, go to friends’ houses, organize things, small parties, evenings with friends, it allows me to de-stress, because for me French society is very closed, it’s every man for himself.” (Mawuko)

102 The comparison between France and the country of origin is recurrent in the discourses of international students, as if this period had particularly highlighted the cultural rift between the two geographical areas. The perception of French cultural traits of restraint and distance seems to have been accentuated by the health risks linked to the coronavirus. For our respondents, the health crisis revealed existing specificities that often seemed to echo personal difficulties, themselves linked to family distance and particularly difficult to bear during this period:


Over there, it’s more social, with the family, we talk, we have fun, it’s true that everyone has their own things to do, but we always find a time to get together [...]. I can say that the crisis has revealed a social distancing in France that was already there, but it was a bit hidden. I don’t know if it’s at the level of our communities, because it’s difficult to get in touch with the French, I don’t know if it’s me, if I have a problem or if it’s them who are blockading us, everyone’s trying to solve their problems, everyone’s in a hurry. At home in Côte d’Ivoire, we say everyone is looking for themselves.” (Yao)

104 Finally, beyond the comparison, the lack of atmosphere and conviviality in France came up regularly in our interviews. This too seems to be reinforced by the loneliness associated with lockdown and social distancing:


The atmosphere, I think the atmosphere is unique, I do not find the atmosphere I had at home here. First of all, all my friends stayed over there, my family stayed over there, so I had my habits that I don’t find here anymore. When I was talking about the atmosphere, I come from Togo and Togo is a country that has a lot of fun, where there is a joie de vivre, it’s different from France.” (Sena)

106 The parties, meetings and exchanges between peers, which are highly anticipated during mobility and central to youthful sociability, are particularly missed here, as student migration has become an individual and largely digital migration. The encounter with the country and its inhabitants could not really take place and physical presence without contact also generates frustration. The health crisis therefore reinforced the feeling of in-betweenness well described by Sayad (1991): in-between places, in-between times, in-between societies and above all in-between ways of being or in-between cultures. This is also why the warmth of the family, the permanence of the bond and the mutual reassurance seemed to be opposed, according to our respondents, to the “coldness” of France. Geographical distance does not prevent the strength of family ties (Beaugendre et al., 2016), when physical presence is not synonymous with proximity or interaction with the French population. This was particularly true in the face of the health situation.

107 It seems that peer relationships, especially among students of the same background, were of great help to our respondents in this period of isolation:


I feel left out, I can’t fit in, I feel more comfortable with people who come from the same background as me.” (Ousmane)

109 As American sociology has shown, from the Chicago School to the work of Portes (1998), community resources can indeed constitute important social capital that often facilitates integration. Portes and Rumbaut (2014) identified in this regard different postures among immigrants in relation to community relations, from commitment to rupture. Nevertheless, interethnic relations, as “positive communities, open to the encompassing society” (Wieviorka, 1996) can indeed, initially, cushion “the shock of uprooting” (Ibid.), which was multiplied tenfold in periods of COVID-19:


You have lived for five, ten or fifteen or twenty years, in total conviviality and suddenly you fall into this situation, I think the break is so abrupt that it acts psychologically and you seem completely down.” (Koffi)

111 Studies conducted with international students had already shown the positive dimension of access to a network of students of the same origin, notably that of Pinto Baleisan (2014), as they often appreciate convivial moments, where the sharing of cultural codes allows them to relax and suspend the difficulties specific to life as foreigners. The weakness or even absence of interethnic relations, sometimes the last support in the host country, can be a real source of suffering. As a result, some will maintain this link even if it means bypassing or not respecting health regulations:


I’m in a university residence, so we’re in the same building, and since we come from the same country, sometimes we meet up and talk. Since we don’t go out, we are in the same building, sometimes they come to my room or I go to their room.” (Hawa)

113 Hamidou Dia had also shown that, faced with anonymity in the host society, Senegalese students in France undergo ‘a cascade of downgrades to which customary solidarity and associative commitment offer an unexpected recourse’ (Dia, 2014: 1). In Cameroon, the work of Célia Fomani (2020) on the professional integration of young graduates nuances these conclusions and raises the question of leaving the community or group, which leads to a more complex vision of the integration process, to how one builds networks outside one’s group.

114 Social life and physical encounters, which are at the heart of youthful sociability, were therefore lacking for students in general, but more particularly for international students. Those who have been living in France for a longer period of time also feel these difficulties but put them into perspective:


This lack of warmth made me feel, not depressed, but a bit in difficulty. [...] That’s why I said that in terms of human relations it’s a bit mixed in France. In the end, I ended up understanding that it’s cultural and I’m dealing with it.” (Mawuko)

116 Another way of overcoming these integration difficulties, which were multiplied by lockdown, was to return temporarily to the country of origin, although this remained relatively marginal in our sample.

The Issue of Temporary Returns

117 The health crisis raised the issue of temporary return to the country of origin in order to avoid solitary lockdown since it was in fact possible to continue studying remotely. Of our ninety-five respondents, only twenty or so returned to their country of origin. Some of the students therefore experienced a break in migration, while a smaller number were able to experience student migration as a “logic of coming and going between two spaces, and not a break or a rejection of one space to the detriment of the other” (Charbit et al., 1997). The question of returning to one’s family, which is central for all students, whether French or international, was underlined acutely by the lockdown. It took on a particular form for international students, in this rationale of access, because it drew a clear line between those who were able to return and the others. It is obvious that the resources of the students and the distance from their country of origin created strong inequalities between them.

118 Three main profiles emerged in our sample when faced with temporary return: the unavoidable return, the desired but impossible return and the unthinkable return. The students who returned did not really ask themselves the question and decided, as if things could not be otherwise, to return to their country of origin to avoid lockdown or a new lockdown alone:


Everything was a bit normal, but when we confined in November again, I remember I said to myself: Oh no, it’s not possible for me, I can’t stay all alone, I can’t stay here, I was in the hotel apartment, I completely panicked. I bought a plane ticket and went to Brazil.” (Ana)

120 These returns, despite the often complicated and stressful journeys, were generally very positive:


Even though I had to carry several documents and a negative COVID test to go, finding my city, my friends, and my family has allowed me to see things differently and be more positive every day!” (Bachelor’s student, eighteen years old, born in Spain)

122 The return allowed them to “live better” during the period, to “escape a little and get out of the routine” and to “take a new breath”. Nevertheless, the return was sometimes ambivalent and may have complicated the return to France:


I am living the period a little better, however since returning to France although it is at my parents’ house I feel doubly locked in given that in Spain the curfew is later and the cafes are open... the fact that I have regained some semblance of a social life and lost it again has had a yo-yo effect.” (Ana)

124 The impossibility of returning, which concerns a significant part of our sample, was experienced as an additional ordeal during this period and highlighted the precarious situation of many international students. It was sometimes well experienced, often philosophically, but it was also synonymous with suffering for many respondents:


It’s very difficult [not to be back] but faced with the impossibility, we console ourselves through the means at hand to get news from the family.” (twenty-seven year-old Master’s studentborn in Cameroon)

126 Living through such an anxious period, far from one’s loved ones, indeed generated additional stress and worries.

127 Finally, the third register, that of the unthinkable return, can be explained by quite different reasons. Most of the international students barely considered returning, because they could not afford it. Others did not see the “sense” in it, often hoping that the situation would be resolved quickly and, because they had made the choice to come to France, sometimes against all odds, with the firm intention of carrying out their university projects. Seydou testifies:


I came here to work, to earn some money so I can concentrate on my studies next year. It’s better to just call the parents and send them the money, because they have the same problems over there, it’s not easy. They are happy because I am in France, it is part of my dream to come and study here. I am happy and they are happy. They call, they motivate me, ‘apply yourself, concentrate on your studies, we don’t need you right now’.

129 Others were primarily afraid of being stranded in their home country, which would have prevented them from completing their studies and exposed their families:


No [he did not return to his country of origin], perhaps for fear of staying there given that the borders are closed every time the incidence rate increases, so I don’t want to take the risk of going to my family to infect them [...] so I preferred to stay in France so as not to return.” (Moudjib)

131 In any case, the health crisis has led many students to rethink the issue of return and its importance to them:


It changed my way of seeing things a little bit to come home a little more often. [...] Going home more often would be better, to recharge my batteries. Even if something happens, at least I know I’ve been there.” (Mawuko)

133 It is obvious that health conditions contributed to this need to return and to be reassured. The financial issue of course played an important role in this non-return, but it was sometimes linked to other dimensions, such as the weight of the family and gender norms.


Yes, I said to myself that the best thing to do is to go back to my country, but it’s just that I’ve never had the desire to do so. Imagine coming here, it’s so many procedures and then there’s the financial means, the parents have spent so much that from one day to the next to come because there’s a crisis and everything, to leave like that, so in the corner of my mind I thought about it but never put it into practice, that’s it. Doing it is like disappointing the whole family, it’s not easy, you have to hold on like in Africa, especially when it’s a boy, if it’s a girl, we can understand.” (Issa)

135 Temporary return is above all linked to financial resources, but also to the student migration project and the weight of the family in the latter. Returning, even temporarily, means making a choice, which can be reassuring and allow one to recharge one’s batteries, but it also means endangering the migration project and exposing oneself to not complying with parental injunctions and social norms.

Migration Routes More or Less Affected by the Health Crisis

136 International students are at the crossroads of different pathways, as these involve the continuity of a journey towards a goal, without prejudice of linearity (Zimmerman, 2011) and articulate different temporalities (Ibid.).

137 The students seem to have oscillated between moments of doubt, resignation, demotivation, hope and determination. In terms of their academic and professional plans, some simply made minor changes, changing their specialties in order, for example, to broaden their fields of expertise in light of the crisis and its consequences:


With this crisis and the difficulties that companies are facing, I need to expand my areas of expertise, so it is because of this crisis that I took this aspect of tax difficulties.” (Koffi)

139 Most of our respondents had deep questions about what to do next and their choices, in a rationale of personal introspection and deceleration that characterized this period, as was the case for all the students (Barthou et al., 2021). Some of them seem to have lost a little confidence in themselves and are therefore unsure of what will happen next. Nevertheless, the reactions were very diverse. Some were considering changing their course of study:


I’m wondering about my future plans, but I haven’t decided yet. I joined this course to learn things, to be operational. But I’m wondering about the skills [...]. If I find a work-study placement in a facility, maybe that will change my mind.” (Mawuko)

141 Others, often because of difficulties related to “educational continuity”, have clearly decided to stop their studies:


Before I intended to continue my studies, but now I think more about professional life, I can say that during this crisis I feel like I lived a century studying, it’s long, it’s stressful too.” (Student, level of education not given, twenty-six years old, born in Algeria)

143 Finally, the health crisis seems to have reinforced the choices of most of them:


Sometimes, I felt a regret to come to France but thinking that I would have more opportunities to achieve my professional project I find that it was the right choice.” (Bachelor student, seventeen years old, born in Morocco)

145 We observed that a large proportion of the students have reinforced their initial projects and are willing to carry them out:


Personally, that’s what I do, I say to myself: ‘Ah, wake up, the objective has not yet been reached, you’ve got a job to do, do your best in a few days or a few months, you’ll graduate and everything will be fine’. But with the internship we are looking for ourselves, we are still waiting until the end of the year so we remain confident that by then everything will be back to normal and we will also find our share.” (Koffi)

147 With regard to the final return to the country of origin, which is closely linked to the university project, it seems that the health crisis and the lockdown clearly played a role:


Yes, it is difficult, even our experience here is difficult because we are better off at home. You’re here in a foreign land, you don’t necessarily have your whole family and so you miss your family members. We miss our family members. We miss the longing for home and so it’s difficult and especially with these moments of lockdown when you’re alone in your room, it makes you think about going back.” (Koffi)

149 Several students seemed to be a little disappointed by France and therefore wished to change their project:


I realized that I didn’t necessarily want to stay and work or do an internship in France anymore, because there are a lot of restrictions unlike in my home country.” (twenty-three year-old Master’s student, born in Niger)

151 Students clearly became aware during this health crisis of the importance of a permanent return, as if it had revealed priorities and the centrality of the family in personal development:


I think it’s best for me to do something that allows me to spend more time with my family, because the future is so unpredictable. I should cherish what I value most...” (twenty-eight year-old Master’s student, born in Vietnam)

153 For others, even if the distance is not always easy to live with, a definitive return is not on the agenda. Most international students, especially Africans, mentioned the professional experience they could acquire in France to make their academic and professional career more solid in view to their return. Nevertheless, some doubts about returning arose in the answers, often linked to the instability or the economic and social problems of their country of origin. To them, France seems to be more capable of ensuring a good future:


Sometimes I think about it [returning permanently] yes, but just during the time when I find difficulties. Afterwards, even in Algeria, it’s more than difficult, there are many things that motivate me when I think about it.” (twenty-six year-old Bachelor student, born in Algeria)

155 Finally, the last group of students seemed to have no other choice than to continue their studies in France, because their family relied on them. The decision was therefore no longer individual but collective, even familial, and the question of choice relative:


The good people I have met here have given me hope and the desire to stay here in France. Moreover, this is the only way for me to improve my family’s life, because here with access to work I can really support my family.” (twenty-seven year-old Master’s student, born in Cameroon)

157 These results highlight the fact that student mobility is not always distinct from other forms of migration and does not only respond to training and career imperatives. The family of origin, transnational networks and project partners do indeed play a central role in migratory training projects (Efionayi and Piguet, 2014).

158 Another factor that seems important in our survey is the strong feeling of otherness and strangeness, certainly amplified by this health crisis and physical and social distancing. Agulhon and Xavier de Brito (2009) stated, with regard to international students in Paris, that they frequently experienced feelings of domination, inferiority and identity withdrawal, but also economic difficulties similar to those of “ordinary” migrants. We found these integration difficulties in the background of our respondents:


I feel left out, I can’t fit in, I feel more comfortable with people who come from the same background as me.” (Ousmane)

160 Students also emphasized this feeling of strangeness and the need for familiarity and closeness:


I think it’s cultural and that’s really what I miss, not feeling like an outsider.” (Mawuko)

162 It also seems important here to think about university pedagogical approaches that are not very open to inclusion and cultural diversity. Indeed, problematic categorizations and identity assignments (Debono, 2015) could be found regarding teachers’ representations, as Ousmane pointed out:


I say this because the way we welcome other students back home in Faso, I have not been welcomed in this way here in France, sometimes it is even the teachers themselves who make the discouraging remarks.

164 As Tarrius (2001) explained, “territory produces not only identity, our sameness, but also otherness, strangeness, their difference.” Migration, even in the case of students, thus highlights ethnicity and strangeness, especially in this period of uncertainty and mistrust of others. However, the combination of feelings of strangeness, academic difficulties and feelings of loneliness can fuel the desire to return home permanently or the frustration of not being able to do so. Indeed, the “final return”, presented as such by some students even if it seemed impossible to speak of a final return at this stage, was imposed for many of our respondents as absolutely unavoidable, which seemed to us to be largely amplified by the crisis with regard to other surveys (Agulhon and Xavier De Brito, 2009) that had focused specifically on African students (Demintseva, 2014). Despite the illusion of the temporary and the provisional (Sayad, 1991), we believe that some of the respondents, because of the uncertainty and the feeling of loneliness linked to this period, tried to reassure themselves by saying that they wanted to return, as we saw that the question of doubt and the path taken during this crisis emerged in many interviews. However, as recommended by Bréant, we should be wary of the representation of immigrants as the embodiment of a “myth” of the constantly deferred return (2020). However, again according to Bréant, these return migrations are not accessible to all those who wish to resettle in their country of origin: “Many returns remain delayed, or even prevented, insofar as it is fundamental to have significant economic and social resources to be able to resettle in practice” (Ibid.). Since mobility and integration are largely dependent on endogenous and exogenous factors, contextual effects and individual resources, it seems essential to consider the lability and plurality of the paths of international students. The health crisis therefore constituted a real bifurcation due to its unpredictability, irreversibility and both collective and individual consequences (Grossetti et al., 2009). However, it seems essential to place its influence on student migration trajectories in perspective, as it is often linked to contextual effects, interactions and non-linearity.


165 Selective immigration policies contribute not only to the slowdown in student migration to France, but also to the reconfiguration of the characteristics of this migration, to the detriment of the most modest students (Kabbanji and Toma, 2020). In this respect, international students seem to have been doubly affected by the health crisis. On the one hand, they suffered, like other students, from the implementation, without any real preparation or support, of educational continuity and the prolonged closure of higher education institutions. On the other hand, they were victims of the distance between their families and their housing conditions. As a result, they were more widely affected by feelings of loneliness and isolation, which may have had serious psychological consequences, as well as learning difficulties. Digital tools were a facilitating factor in this period, but the demands made by universities and families to be constantly connected led some to feel overburdened and a wish to disconnect, at least temporarily, despite the difficulty of doing so during this period. However, hyperconnection does not seem to have compensated for the absence of teachers or peers, or even the physical distance from home and family. Finally, the health crisis has pushed many students to rethink their plans for international mobility, that is to say whether a definitive return has become unavoidable, necessary or unthinkable.

166 Our work underlines, beyond this health crisis which really served as a revelation, the importance of welcoming international students in France. It could be interesting here to think of ways to raise awareness among university actors of the singularities of international students and intercultural diversity, in order to prevent the installation of a certain culturalist fatalism from becoming a pretext for inaction (Debono, 2015). Furthermore, it seems essential to be able to think of international students not in terms of precariousness or inadequacies, but as fully-fledged, reflexive and responsible actors. Like Simmel’s foreigner (1908), marked by the exteriority resulting from the “peculiar combination of proximity and distance, of attention and indifference”, international students indeed contribute a critical and relevant view on both our university system and on their environment. Most of them indeed stressed the need to rapidly implement an ecological transition combined with both local solidarity and international solidarity.

167 Beyond the need to think about the support of international students in their diversity and plurality, the experiences and views of the latter invite us to question the issues that our universities, and more broadly French society, are facing today.

168 Table 1: Sociography

Figure 1


  • [1]
    This research (2020-2022) is funded by the Nouvelle-Aquitaine Region and supervised by Évelyne Barthou, Yann Bruna and Gaëlle Deletraz, all three researchers at the UMR CNRS TREE, University of Pau (see
  • [2]
    Part of these interviews were conducted by Tchapo Nikabou, Master 2 student of sociology at UPPA and trainee on the TRANSICOVID project.
  • [3]
    In this respect, we distinguish between the international students who responded to our online questionnaire, designated by socio-demographic factors (level of study, age, country of origin), and the international students from our interviews, who are pseudonymized (see Appendix 1: Sociography).
  • [4]
    See Insee (2020) Conditions de vie des ménages en période de confinement, [online] last checked on 24/11/2021. URL:
  • [5]
    See Qualitel (2020) Le confinement, révélateur des inégalités dans la qualité du logement, [online] last checked on 24/11/2021. URL:
  • [6]
    Expression used in marketing as a method of producing a form of social anxiety leading the individual to perform an action (in this case, staying online) by exploiting their fear of missing something important.

Foreign students have been particularly affected by the health crisis, primarily because of their status as students, but also because of their family’s remoteness and housing conditions. They were strongly affected by the isolation and the feeling of loneliness, which could lead to learning and understanding difficulties on the one hand, and to heavy psychological consequences on the other hand. Digital devices have been a facilitating factor in this period but academic and family injunctions to permanent connection have led some of them to a sense of saturation and a desire to disconnect, at least temporarily, though it has been very difficult in practice. Finally, the health crisis has prompted many students to rethink their project and international mobility, whether the final return has become inevitable, necessary or unavoidable.

  • migration project
  • international students
  • trajectories
  • COVID-19
  • health crisis
  • family link
  • information and communication technology (ICT)

Une année perdue ? Le parcours migratoire des étudiants internationaux en France à l’heure de la crise sanitaire

Les étudiants internationaux ont été particulièrement affectés par la crise sanitaire, avant tout du fait de leur statut d’étudiant, mais aussi de l’éloignement familial et de leurs conditions de logement. Ils ont été fortement touchés par l’isolement et le sentiment de solitude, ce qui a pu entrainer des difficultés de compréhension et d’apprentissage mais aussi des conséquences psychologiques assez lourdes. Les outils numériques ont été un facteur facilitant dans cette période mais les injonctions universitaires et familiales à la connexion permanente ont mené certains d’entre eux à un sentiment de saturation et à une volonté de déconnexion, au moins temporaire, quoique très difficile. Enfin, la crise sanitaire a poussé de nombreux étudiants à repenser leur projet et mobilité internationale, que le retour définitif soit devenu incontournable, nécessaire ou inenvisageable.

  • projet migratoire
  • trajectoires
  • COVID-19
  • crise sanitaire
  • étudiants internationaux
  • lien familial
  • technologies de l’information et de la communication (TIC)

¿Un año perdido? La trayectoria migratoria de los estudiantes internacionales en Francia durante la crisis sanitaria

Los estudiantes extranjeros se vieron especialmente afectados por la crisis sanitaria, en primer lugar por su condición de estudiantes, pero también por la distancia que les separa de sus familias y las condiciones de alojamiento. El aislamiento y el sentimiento de soledad les afectaron demasiado, lo que pudo provocar dificultades de comprensión y aprendizaje, pero también consecuencias psicológicas bastante graves. Las herramientas digitales fueron un factor facilitador en este periodo, pero las expectativas universitarias y familiares de estar permanentemente conectados llevaron a algunos de ellos a un sentimiento de saturación y a un deseo de desconexión, al menos temporalmente, aunque muy difícil. Por último, la crisis sanitaria hizo que muchos estudiantes se replanteen sus planes de movilidad internacional, ya sea que el regreso definitivo se haya vuelto inevitable, necesario o impensable.

  • proyecto migratorio
  • trayectorias
  • COVID-19
  • crisis sanitaria
  • estudiantes internacionales
  • vínculo familiar
  • tecnologías de la información y las comunicaciones (TIC)
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Evelyne Barthou
Associate professor in sociology at the University of Pau and Pays de l’Adour and researcher at the UMR TREE, avenue de l’Université, 64000 Pau; evelyne.barthou[at]
Yann Bruna
Associate professor in sociology and associate researcher at the UMR TREE; ybruna[at]
Emma Lujan
Research engineer at UMR TREE, University of Pau and Pays de l’Adour, avenue de l’Université, 64000 Pau; emma.lujan[at]
Keith Hodson
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
Uploaded on on 28/10/2022
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