/ 13 February 2024

Europe brewed its so-called ‘migrant crisis’

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Migrants of various nationalities are rescued by the Spanish NGO Open Arms in international waters on September 30, 2023. The migrants are from Syria, Bangladesh, Sudan, Eritrea, Palestine, Guinea, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Ghana, Egypt, Chat, Senegal and Mali. (Photo by Jose Colon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Fish is central to Senegalese life. On Senegal’s shores, fishermen unload their catch on trucks that drive it inland to the markets where women sell it. Across the land, fish is a core ingredient in thieboudienne, the Unesco-stamped national dish and cultural artefact.

But a series of fishing treaties with the European Union have decimated Senegal’s fishing culture and livelihoods.

Three decades ago, people in Spain and Senegal ate about the same amount of fish: 35kg per person a year. Today, Spain’s consumption has risen to 40kg; in Senegal it has dwindled to 12kg, according to data from the United Nations.

Acting as one “fishing nation”, the EU has signed enough ocean-use agreements with countries in the Global South that, by 2013, European ships were taking a billion kilogrammes of fish from beyond EU waters.

The current treaty with Senegal came into force in 2019 and expires in November 2024. It says that as long as the EU pays the Senegalese government about $3.2 million each year, European — mainly Spanish — vessels are allowed to trawl for tuna and hake off Senegal’s coast.

This is despite several species of hake in West Africa are overexploited, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

The EU signed its first agreement with Senegal in 1979 and renewed it dozens of times. In one spell covered by those treaties, 1994 and 2008, fish on the Senegalese market fell from 95 million kilogrammes to 45 million kilogrammes and the number of local small fishing boats nearly halved, researchers at the Transnational Institute found. 

They could not keep up with the pace at which larger EU ships with better technology were sweeping the waters. Senegal cancelled the treaty in 2006.

Then, eight years later, the government signed a new treaty saying that this time, the European ships would not only take the fish away but also sell a significant amount of it to Senegalese canneries.

This does nothing for small-scale fisherfolk trying to make a living from the sea. Some have since turned their small boats into transport for migrants to Europe, contributing to what European countries bemoan as the “migrant crisis”.

They charge each migrant as much as $800 for the precarious journey to Spain. Families and friends often collectively raise the amount, expecting that the migrant will pay them back upon arrival in Europe.

In the small village of Arinaga, in Spain’s Canary Islands, fishermen’s boats and canoes pile up in a cemetery next to an industrial area, near the beach, swarmed by a colony of cats. Some still have inscriptions betraying Senegal as their origin. 

These vessels stand as testimony to the thousands of journeys made between Senegal and Spain by West Africans looking for work. In 2023, almost 40 000 people entered Europe through the Canary Islands archipelago from the coasts of West Africa.

Moudou was one of them. He arrived in Las Palmas, Canary Islands, in October. He used to be a fisherman in Saint Louis, in northern Senegal. He left Senegal on the guidance of his Uncle Mourtalla, who had made the crossing years earlier.

Mourtalla was imprisoned for “human trafficking” on arrival in Europe but is now out and working odd jobs in Spain’s agricultural sector.

Despite Mourtalla’s hardships in Spain, both felt that the journey was worth risking. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to fish because of large ships,” Moudou says. He is looking for a job in Spain because, like many others, the pressure to send money home started even before he left Senegal.

The political establishments whose decisions forced Moudou into Spain will lose little for sticking him between a rock and a hard place.

In Europe, despite populist anti-immigration talk during electioneering, their economies have much to gain from migrant workers.

Spain is a European export powerhouse for products such as pork, olive oil, citrus fruits and other fresh produce.

The average age of farm owners in Spain is about 45. The arrival of youthful undocumented migrants has been a source of cheap labour for years.

Without proper documentation, migrants cannot demand better conditions as local workers do. “Blacks do the jobs that whites do not want to do,” says Mor, a Senegalese man who has worked loading sacks of bananas, one of the main exports of the Canary Islands.

The work was gruelling and the wages, a pittance. Cheikh, who has been in Spain for two years, once had a job picking broccoli. “I remember my hands freezing because it was very cold,” he says.

While the process of obtaining documents is a hard, often a years-long struggle, some like Mor eventually get work permits and secure jobs in the formal sector. 

Here the minimum wage is €1 000 ($1 000), roughly six times the amount they would earn in the informal sector in Dakar. Then they start sending money home. 

This is good for the national accounts of the Senegalese government. Senegalese workers abroad already send between $2.5 million and $3-billion a year of their earnings home, contributing nearly 10% of the country’s GDP.

It also means that Senegalese politicians can continue pursuing what economist Ndongo Samba Sylla describes as “jobless growth” to spruce up their economic statistics.

Macroeconomic indicators show Senegal has registered considerable economic growth for years. That growth could be supercharged by the export of gas and oil from deposits located in the northern part of the country. 

As Europe tries to wean itself off Russia’s gas because of its war in Ukraine, German chancellor Olaf Scholz expressed interest in importing some of this gas. President Macky Sall reassured him Senegal was ready to work towards supplying the European market with liquefied natural gas, forecasting that the country’s LNG output would reach “10 million tonnes by 2030”.

That growth would have to happen over the cries of fisherfolk in Saint Louis who have staged protests against the potential harmful effect of oil extraction on their livelihoods.

But if those fisherfolk go to Europe to work on its farms for a pittance, there will be fewer protests against the LNG gas project. 

This article first appeared in The Continent , the pan-African weekly  newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian . It’s designed to be read and  shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy at thecontinent.org