Weary of poverty, Senegalese migrants head for Europe

Weary of poverty, Senegalese migrants head for Europe

© Denis Balibouse / Reuters

THIAROYE-SUR-MER, Senegal (Reuters) - After being repatriated to Senegal on a Spanish military plane having risked his life on a perilous sea crossing to the Canary Islands in 2006, Moustafa Diouf founded an association to warn young Africans of the dangers of illegal migration to Europe.

Last week, the secretary-general of his group gave up and took a bus to Morocco from where traffickers smuggled him to Spain aboard a fishing vessel. He was fed up at working without pay because donors did not provide the support they hoped for.

Now, Diouf, undeterred by the latest drownings of up to 900 migrants who were trying to reach Europe, is so desperate he is ready to do the same.

"I'm not afraid to die. I'm ready to leave. I cannot just stay here with my arms crossed," he said, on the beach at Thiaroye-sur-Mer, a ramshackle village outside Senegal's capital Dakar, where brightly painted fishing boats line the shore.

For around 500,000 CFA francs ($823), traffickers will take you to Libya and across the sea to Italy, Diouf said: "Everyone here is looking for someone who is leaving."

Diouf, like many others, sees Europe as a place to find a job and a better life. As the peak summer migration season gets underway, thousands of African migrants are headed for north Africa to make the crossing. Chaos in Libya, following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, has allowed traffickers to thrive.

Between January and March, nearly 1,200 Senegalese arrived in Italy by sea - up a quarter from the same period last year and the second-highest nationality behind neighboring Gambia, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

A surge of migrants into Italy in April sparked fears that their numbers this year could top the record 170,000 people who crossed by sea in 2014 -- nearly half of them from war-torn Syria and the repressive east African state of Eritrea.

By contrast, Senegal is West Africa's most stable democracy but would-be migrants here say they are desperate to escape poverty. Income per head in the country of 14 million averages just over $1,000 a year. Youth unemployment is rampant in a country where half the population is under 18.

Shocked by the death of some 1,800 migrants this year in the Mediterranean, European leaders agreed on Thursday to triple funding to its Operation Triton search mission off the Italian coast to 120 million euros.

But, for Diouf what is needed are jobs at home. He said Europe had not kept promises to invest in fishing and training in Senegal to help young people find work: on the contrary, European trawlers plunder Senegalese waters, making life harder for local fisherman.

"The government and the European Union must accept their responsibilities because we cannot live here without anything at all," Diouf said. "We cannot stop illegal immigration altogether but we could decrease it."


Senegal has a long tradition of emigration. With an estimated 500,000 Senegalese overseas, many families rely on income from a relative abroad. Remittances totaled around $1.7 billion in 2013 -- more than a tenth of economic output.

"Some families encourage their children to make the crossing by sending them money once they get to Libya," said Souleymane Jules Diop, Minister of Senegalese Overseas, told Reuters. "That's the reality and the state cannot stop it."

President Macky Sall's government has called on European nations to accept more legal migration from Africa. It has also pledged to tackle the traffickers making millions from illegal routes crossing the continent.

A crackdown by EU border agency Frontex and a repatriation deal by the Senegalese government effectively shut the 1,300-km migration route to the Canary Islands that Diouf took.

Now migrants leave by bus to Morocco from Dakar's Pikine neighborhood, locals say. Otherwise, they travel to the Malian capital Bamako and head north to the desert town of Gao or Agadez in neighboring Niger where smugglers ferry them across the Sahara, often in open-topped trucks.

The route passes under the nose of a 10,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, where Islamist militants prowl the desert. Along the way migrants fees to transporters, traffickers and bribes to police not to send them home, said Julien Brachet, a specialist on migration at the Paris based IRD think-tank.

"It is not the poorest people who leave, you need to have social and economic resources," Brachet said. "Economic reasons are frequently cited by migrants, because that is socially acceptable, but it is not necessarily the main reason.”

On the beach of Thiaroye, locals voice grief for those who have died in the Mediterranean in recent days -- some of them from Senegal. To many, it is a reminder of friends and relatives lost trying to reach Europe.

"Before I wanted to leave but my parents would not let me. My three cousins left and they all died," said Doudou Faye, 42, a father of four, as he mended his fishing boat. "I saw the other day that 700 people died. Now I am too afraid to go."

(Additional reporting by Diadie Ba in Dakar; editing by Anna Willard)