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Poverty, search for status driving migration to Europe

[Senegal] Fishing boats, Dakar. [Date picture taken: 05/31/2006]
Type de pirogue emprunté par les immigrants clandestins pour braver les mers et rejoindre l'Espagne (Julie Vandal/IRIN )

Behind the Soumbedioune fish market in the centre of the Senegalese capital, Dakar, three men jumped out of a brightly decorated canoe laden with fish. Each of these three has already attempted the dangerous, 1448km journey from Senegal to the Canary Islands and forms part of the rising tide of illegal immigrants gambling with their lives at sea for better work, better pay, and better lives in Europe.

They are the faces behind the increasingly political debate surrounding illegal immigration by Africans to northern neighbouring countries in Europe.

Pape Seck, a small but muscular 22-year-old fisherman who sets out each day on the pirogue now docked at shore, attempted the passage on 10 September last year. "It was a difficult journey, yes. But as fishermen, we are used to the challenges of the ocean,” he said.

Pape, clad in dirt fringed cut-off jeans and a yellow, threadbare T-shirt, talked non-stop about his “adventure at sea”.

"Two other fishermen and I were offered free passage to take care of the boat on the way to the Canaries.” The trip was organised by a Senegalese man from Mbour, a fishing village south of Dakar, he said.

“How could I say no? I just steered his boat and made sure the engine was running. I was looking forward to finding work in a country where people can become rich, at least compared to what we have here.”

“I saw 12 people die”

Pape left Senegal from the village of Mbour with 107 others mostly from Senegalese but also Gambia, Guinea, and Mauritania. There were two women on board the boat. Each had paid 400,000 CFA francs [US$800] for their seat.

Photo: Google Earth
Over 31,000 people tried to get illegally to the Canary Islands from West Africa last year, according to the IOM. Of those, at least 6,000 died on the way

“We crammed onto a boat that should normally fit about 30 people. Everyone was praying just to make it to the islands. People were vomiting; some were seeing visions and spirits.” Two men, delirious from dehydration, jumped off the boat on the way. Ten others died on board and were thrown into the sea, Pape said.

On 3 July the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) called for more action to prevent humanitarian tragedies associated with illegal migration across waters.

"There's a very mixed flow of people… risking their lives on unseaworthy vessels often operated by ruthless smuggling rings who care nothing for human life," said Erika Feller, UNHCR's senior protection official.

Sent back

Pape’s boat reached the Canaries nine days later. But his stay was short-lived. Towards the end of October, he was repatriated in a joint effort between the Spanish and Senegalese governments, which started shuttling migrants back to Senegal’s northern capital Saint Louis by air.

“When I got to the Canaries, I had no idea what would happen. Some days, I thought I would make it to Spain, and some days I was sure they would send me back.”

What Pape described resembles more closely a game of chance than a structured system for dealing with illegal immigrants. “Some of the passengers claimed to be from Cote d’Ivoire and other more dangerous countries. They had destroyed their identity papers, so there was no way the Europeans could tell where they came from. Most of the ones who lied were able to stay, to move on to Spain. I said I was Senegalese, and they sent me back.”

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), upon arrival in the Canary Islands, if it is established that the migrant is Senegalese, they will normally be repatriated within 40 days under the terms of an agreement between the Spanish and Senegalese governments.

Not bitter

Though Pape has seen a brother and many fellow fishermen make it to Europe by these means, he shows no signs of bitterness. "I can't be angry at any government, Senegalese or European. It's just our destiny, who stays and who comes back.” But he does wish he had been allowed to stay, because those who make it “send so much more money back to their families than I can here".

Other fishermen echoed their agreement; they confirmed that most are willing to risk the trip after they see the money successful migrants are capable of sending back to their families.

IOM estimates over 31,000 Africans in 901 vessels attempted the trip from West Africa to the Canary Islands in 2006. Of those, about 6,000 died or went missing at sea. This year, between January and June, 101 boats carrying illegal immigrants have reached the Islands carrying a total of 4,304 passengers, according to IOM.

“Social recognition” a pull factor

“Studies show that sociocultural aspects are playing an increasingly important role in migrants’ decisions to make the trip,” Manuel Lopez Baumann, West Africa Information Officer for IOM, said. “It’s not just the economic struggle any more, though that remains the most pressing issue. Now, part of the motivation for trying to reach Europe is the social recognition that comes with living and working abroad.”

''...You see all these men and boats and how few fish we catch... there's no living off the sea these days...''

The unemployment rate in Senegal is close to 50 percent, and most Senegalese live on less than US$2 per day. Europe has responded to increasing rates of illegal immigration with tighter border security, joint repatriation efforts, and aid money aimed at encouraging Africans to remain in their countries.

No money in fishing

Asked why he was willing to risk his life to find work in Europe, Pape responded: "Look here on the beach. You can see all of these men, with their boats, and how few fish we catch after a whole day’s efforts. There's no living off the sea these days. The fish are gone, and hard work won’t change that.”

As he speaks, a local woman approaches the boat to purchase the seven fat, red eyed fish he caught during the day. Today, the long hours on the water will bring Seck and his mates CFA 6,500, or about US$13.

After nine hours of work, Pape will actually lose money. Every morning, he must purchase CFA 12,000, or about US$24 of fuel to run the boat. He shares a room and rent with two other fishermen, and any money they have left is sent back to the village of Thies, where each of them has families to support.

“If the government was willing to help us find jobs, it would be different. We know they get money from the Spanish government to help each of us who are sent back, but we never see any of that money."

''...The population and youth need to believe in their chances for success in Senegal...''

Tempted to try again

“It’s hard to make money here, so I am tempted to try and go back. Now I know that it’s best to just say that you’re from another country. But my family and friends don’t want me to risk my life again. So, I’ll stay here and keep working. I pray everyday that things will get better here,” Pape said, allowing, for the first time, a small hint of despair to tint his voice.

“In order for things to change, the population, and especially the youth, need to believe in their chances for success in Senegal. This can only happen with the further development of the country and a general change in mentality,” IOM’s Baumann told IRIN.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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