Setting sights across the sea

They drive the most expensive cars and build the biggest houses. In impoverished Senegal illegal migrants are models of success and the more attention they draw the more other young men seek to emulate them.

More than 27,000 illegal migrants have turned up on the Spanish Canary Islands off the West African coast this year alone, thousands more than in 2005, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Spanish authorities say the bodies of more than 500 suspected migrants have been found this year in the ocean around the Canaries.

The conviction that all means are justified to try to reach Europe is echoed in expressions such as 'Barça mba Barzakh' (Barcelona or die), and 'Mbëek', a word in the local Wolof language meaning “migration” and derived from the image of a charging ram.

"Migrants have always had a considerable social status in our society. The few families who are doing well financially are families with migrants,” said researcher Papa Demba Fall, an expert on migration flows. “This has a profound effect on our mentality. Many young people think they have to pass through Europe in order to succeed in life."

Historic precedent

Migration from Senegal dates back to the colonial era, when France governed its African colonies from the northern coastal city of Saint Louis. Under French rule, the Senegalese were trained as civil servants, teachers and craftsmen and sent to work across West Africa as auxiliaries to the colonial administration.

The exodus to Europe began in the 1980s as a result of successive droughts, deepening economic problems and fast-paced urbanisation. Members of the powerful Mourid Islamic brotherhood, who had mostly been peanut farmers, were told by their leaders to “go forth and work”. They ended up creating an international network of street vendors from New York to Tokyo.

Thousands of Senegalese crossed the Sahara desert and hopped on boats from Morocco and Mauritania in search of a better future in France or Italy. But when Rabat and Nouakchott stepped up patrols at the end of last year many migrants opted for the longer and more dangerous sea journey to the Canary Islands instead.

"Migrants are seen as desperate but you could just as well say they have too much hope,” said Fall. “They always believe they'll make it, even though they have absolutely no idea of geography or space. Often, they don't even know the difference between Spain and Germany."

Economic incentive

What is more tangible is the money they earn. Remittances sent by migrants to their families account for nearly 15 percent of GDP in Senegal, according to a recent report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

"There is little incentive to stop migration because it brings in more funds than development aid," said Laurent de Boeck, IOM deputy regional representative.

Analysts say the status that migrants hold in Senegalese society, both culturally and economically, dissuades Senegal’s government from cracking down on trafficking networks. However, the government has announced an ambitious project to allocate plots of farmland to migrants and other unemployed youths to keep them at home.

But youths and political opposition leaders have condemned the plan, known by its acronym REVA, as a tool for Wade to win votes in next year's presidential election.

"The government says we should go back to the countryside while everyone knows that agriculture in Senegal doesn't work," one of the returnees said earlier this year. "We are not going to farm."

A question of perception

Senegalese youths are widely disappointed with Wade, who they say failed to deliver on his 2001 election campaign promise to create more jobs, said religious leader Makhary Mbaye.

"Nearly 40 percent of urban youth are unemployed and they see no alternative but to leave. Of course we can say, 'Don't go, it's too dangerous', but what do we offer them instead?"

In the meantime, authorities have stepped up efforts to stop boats headed for the Canaries. Senegal has granted permission to the European agency Frontex to monitor its coastline. France, too, has promised to help Senegal patrol its coasts under an agreement that makes it easier for Senegalese businessmen, academics and students to obtain a French visa.

Additional deals by Spain with Senegal's southern neighbours Gambia and Guinea-Bissau, whose coasts have become a new springboard for migrants, demonstrate that migration risks becoming "an instrument of political negotiation" for African leaders, said De Boeck of IOM.

"In the end, the African countries win on all levels,” he said. “They don't consider it a bad thing that thousands of unemployed young men are leaving the country, and now they can negotiate for more development aid."

//This is the second in a series of stories on illegal migration this week.//