/ 18 June 2024

Home may be the least bad option for African migrants

Thousands of African migrants have attempted to cross the Mediterranean into Europe in recent months —often in old fishing boats and dinghies. AFP
Book documents the misery and torment of African refugees and migrants fleeing war and dictatorships in search of safety on European shores. (AFP)

For many young people in West Africa, Europe is something of an El Dorado.

But Sidy Fall, who attempted the arduous journey to this fabled land of fabulous

riches, only to be forced back into Senegal, says: “I know the hard times are

still here and waiting for us at home. But I will only see the end of this fight against

my family’s poverty by staying alive. I’m alive and that’s the most important thing.”

Fall took menial jobs, including selling coffee in the streets of Dakar to raise CFA550,000 (just over $900) for a journey to Europe aboard a pirogue. He almost reached the promised land.

But just 500km from the European coast, the pirogue he was sharing with dozens of others was intercepted by the Moroccan coast guard. They were taken to a desert

detention centre in Western Sahara called Bir Gandouz.

The European Union gave Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia nearly €450 million ($480-million) from 2015 to 2021 for border control and “migration governance”. 

This “substantially contributed to the voluntary return of over 52,800 migrants” from North Africa, the bloc reports.

The European Union ignores how this “voluntary return” happens but numerous media outlets have reported that it often involves intercepting migrants and holding them at isolated desert locations until they agree to return home. That is what happened in Fall’s case.

Along with 27 other Senegalese migrants, Fall was held in Bir Gandouz for weeks. Video clips from the facility showed a dirty prison with a filthy toilet and the migrants complained that they weren’t getting enough to eat or drink.

Ten of the Senegalese escaped but one eventually returned after failing to find his way through the desert. Those who didn’t escape posted videos begging, “We just want to go home with dignity.” They say guards beat them for releasing these videos. Fall is nursing an injured ankle.

After three weeks, Moroccan authorities sent the migrants back towards Senegal on a journey that Fall describes as “an indescribable ordeal”.

Aboard the bus hired by Moroccan authorities were people with a mix of injuries, from smashed noses to swollen faces and broken legs. They had only dry bread for food and were still wearing the clothes they had on when they were intercepted nearly a month earlier. 

“I was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt,” Fall says. All were handcuffed.

At the border with Mauritania, they were taken off the buses and left with local authorities who boarded them on new buses, still handcuffed, and drove them to the Senegalese border.

“We thought they were going to give us a decent welcome, but once we got home, our compatriots registered and questioned us, handcuffed. Then they set us free, with no money and no credit for our phones. We all begged for credit to call our relatives,” says Fall. His father sent him money, with which he bought a pair of sandals, pants and a

new T-shirt on the street. Others used their money to buy food.

Weeks after his return to Senegal, Fall has not yet seen his immediate family. “I just need to take care of myself, heal first and let the noise around my forced return fade away,” he says. 

He is living with other relatives while he sees a marabout (traditional healer) who is caring for his injured ankle.

Although he holds a high school diploma, Fall had given up hope of finding regular employment in Senegal. While his migration ordeal has made him reconsider going north, he is still sceptical about the prospects at home.

“Young people are used to organise and win elections but are often abandoned

afterwards,” says the 30-year-old, who voted for President Bassirou Diomaye Faye in Senegal’s April elections. 

And many young Senegalese who share such sentiments are still making the treacherous journey to Europe. According to Frontex — the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders — the number of migrants arriving in Europe through the West Africa route increased by 510% in the first quarter of 2024 — most of them from Mali, Senegal and Mauritania.

Hundreds continue to arrive each week, according to sources in Spain. The results of last weekend’s EU elections signal that little will change. The right-of-centre parties, custodians of the bloc’s already brutal immigration policies, kept power and they will be joined in the EU parliament by an ever strengthening hard right.

These are parties that campaigned on keeping people out of Europe. 

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