/ 28 May 2024

Senegalese migrants on hunger strike in Western Sahara after Moroccan navy interception

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In a year-long investigation released last week, UK-based Lighthouse Reports revealed that EU funding is being used for an ongoing wave of “desert dumps” across Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. File photo by Jose Colon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Weeks after the Moroccan navy intercepted their boat en route to Spain’s Canary Islands, 18 Senegalese migrants say they are on hunger strike to protest their ongoing detention in Bir Gandouz, Western Sahara.

The migrants documented their interception at sea in a shaky, grainy video, which they later shared with The Continent.

“It’s really painful. We are only 500km from Spain! We sailed all the way here only to get caught after spending more than 500 000 CFA francs (R15 000)!” one man exclaims. 

Between curses and sardonic laughter, another man on the boat says: “I really don’t know what to think right now.”

The migrants were taken to Bir Gandouz where they met others from Guinea and The Gambia. A few days later, on 9 May, they reached out to The Continent for the first time.

“We are super tired. They left us here. They don’t want to let us leave or go home. We just need help. They serve bad food. We don’t eat or drink enough. We don’t sleep well. We just want to go home with dignity,” says a man in another shaky video.

“We call upon the state of Senegal: ‘Your sons who are here are tired.’ We were 28 Senegalese, 10 fled. We are practically in the desert.”

A couple of days later, the migrants staged a protest demanding that they be repatriated to Senegal. In a short video of the protest, joined by migrants from Guinea, a lone Moroccan guard is seen overseeing it in silence.

In a separate voice note, they say local authorities have promised that their return to Senegal is imminent — they are just waiting on a decision from Mauritania to allow their bus to cross its territory.

But this decision is complicated. Since 2018, Mauritania has required all travellers between West Africa and Morocco to hold a transit visa called Accès-Visa-Maroc.

“Without this visa, access to Morocco by air and land is impossible via Mauritania,” says

Mouhamed Ag Ahmedou, an author and Malian civil society leader. 

This effectively killed the Senegal-Mauritania-Morocco migration route but it’s unclear why Moroccan authorities, who issue these visas in the first place, now need Mauritanian permission for the outbound bus to take the 18 back to Senegal.

Between 11 and 14 May, the migrants went eerily silent. In the meantime, local media picked up the story from clips on social media. When the migrants reached out again, on 18 May, they said their phones had been confiscated, save for one that they managed to hide.

They also said they had been beaten for informing the outside world and had begun a hunger strike, hoping to attract the empathy of the Senegalese consulate in Morocco.

The ordeal of these 28 migrants is not isolated. In a year-long investigation released last week, UK-based Lighthouse Reports revealed that EU funding is being used for an ongoing wave of “desert dumps” across Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia.

The investigators spoke to 50 people who survived being “dumped”. All were black people. Some had been captured off the streets in North Africa in clandestine operations that disregarded the legal status of their presence there.

The Guineans and some of the Gambians that the 28 met in Bir Gandouz have since been taken back home, after their countries reportedly paid for flights, but there is little indication that the Senegalese government will follow suit.

From its social media announcements, the Senegalese foreign affairs ministry appears preoccupied with forging new partnerships with the EU and renewing traditional relations with neighbouring countries. 

Despite being repeatedly tagged on social media videos shared by the 18 men in detention, Senegal’s President Bassirou Diomaye Faye, Prime Minister Ousmane Sonko and the foreign affairs minister didn’t respond.

But the new government in Dakar also appears nonchalant about preventing people from leaving in the first place, which its EU partners would prefer.

Receiving French leftwing leader Jean-Luc Melenchon in Dakar, Sonko said in a wide-ranging speech that “migrants are taking the path of resources

plundered by Westerners’’.

Along that path, however, are EU-funded anti-migration enforcers waiting to stop and humiliate them.

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