Migrant Lives

In Senegal, Where Europe’​s Dangerous Allure Continues To Beckon

Fishermen wait on boats at a fish market in M'bour, Senegal
Fishermen wait on boats at a fish market in M'bour, Senegal
Christophe Châtelot

THIAROYE â€" Sitting on the corner of his bed, behind the curtains drawn to hide the blazing sun, Saada Ndiaye is waiting for the moment to come. That moment is his would-be departure to Spain, via a clandestine and uncertain path from this small town in Senegal, and onward through Morocco.

Ndiaye, who introduces himself as a "32-year-old carpenter, tiler, soccer player and DJ," has only this journey in mind these days. He’s been thinking it over for months, saving up the necessary 500 euros in secret, keeping his hairdresser wife, their twins and the rest of his family from knowing his intentions.

"Otherwise they’d try to talk me out of it," he says.

In the fishing village of Thiaroye, outside the capital Dakar, Ndiaye’s dream is hardly original. "He who stays isn't man enough," they say in this neighborhood, nicknamed the "Barcelona airport" during the major migration waves of the 2000s, when pirogues, the typical fishing boats used here, swarmed onto the Spanish Canary Islands.

That was when Makha Diarra, a local fisherman, gave it a go. Like the others, Diarra â€" a giant with large, thick hands who struggles to feed his nine children â€" took to the sea in hopes of finally being able to provide.

"In 2005, there were new regulations for fishing nets, then more and more Spanish or Korean fishing boats came to clear the sea of all the fish. Not to mention the pollution," he recalls. "In short, there were fewer and fewer fish. We had to sail further away, bring back fewer and fewer fish in our nets. Today, it’s even worse."

Dangerous crossings

The area's postcard-like landscape became a scene of despair. At Diarra’s feet, a layer of trash covers the sand of what used to be Dakar’s most beautiful beach. Collapsed walls are evidence of the ravages of the last large tide and the inexorable rising waters that are eating away the houses along the coast, asphyxiating the coconut trees.

Pirogues with sparkling colors are rotting away at the edge of the bay. Across the way fumes rise from a chemical factory that spews its toxic waters directly into the sea. Off the coast is Gorée Island and its House of Slaves from another era.

Leaning in the shadow of a wall on this rainy day, Diarra scans the rough sea that forces him to stay ashore and ponders his double failure, already a decade old. At that time, the night-time ballet of pirogues leaving Thiaroye and two other nearby fishing villages, was almost constant.

For 500,000 CFA Francs (the equivalent of 800 euros) paid to the pirogue captains â€" some have become millionaires â€" those who wanted to leave were queuing up. Some 90 passengers would be piled up in 15-square-meter boats driven by clapped out engines, equipped with just an inflatable vest as sole life insurance.

At first, it was Dakar natives, then people came from the entire country. Later they came from all over western Africa. Thousands of people took to the waves. Some succumbed to them.

"It got to the point that one day, we saw Spanish people come in the neighborhood to teach us how to use a GPS and limit the number of shipwrecks," recalls Pape Gueye, a former migrant with two wives and 12 children.

Diarra, for his part, never even reached the Canary Islands, the gateway to the European "El Dorado" at the time. Each time he set off blasts of wind and the raging sea defeated his initiatives. "We’re fishermen, we know the sea, it was too risky. So we went back," he recalls.

Fishermen prepare to unload boats in M'bour, Senegal. â€" Photo : Jim Wells/QMI Agency/ZUMA

Creating alternatives

The son of Yayi Bayam Diouf, founder of a local women's collective, wasn't so lucky. "It was in March 2007," she recalls, fighting back the tears. "The pirogue in which he traveled started taking on water due to heavy swells, somewhere between Mauritania and the Canary Islands."

"Not far away, there were lights," she says, continuing with the story. "A second pirogue headed towards the lights, thinking it was land, where it could drop the passengers off and return to get the others. But lights were really a boat. When the second pirogue eventually came back, there were only floating baggages and debris left, no survivors."

Bayam Diouf feels largely responsible for her son's fate. "The young people emigrate to help their mothers," she says while cutting up fish. "Working in Europe and sending money back. It’s the children’s role to take care of their elderly. I myself drew in my savings to pay for his departure. He died from it. Now other mothers are doing the same."

Bayam Diouf set up the collective later as a way to fight against illegal emigration. The group smokes and packages fish, which it then sells both locally and abroad â€" even to members of the Senegalese diaspora in Europe.

One of the goals is to help mothers who, like her, have lost their only son, a tragedy that is all the more devastating given the patriarchal structure of the Lebou people, Dakar's original community. "For the Lebou people, alliances are made through the marriage of the son, it’s the guarantee of a social position," she says calmly. "Without a son, you’re nothing, neither socially or economically."

The second goal of her collective is to help the youth in Thiaroye â€" a town that is eaten away by the economic stagnation of the country, one of the poorest in Africa â€" by enabling them to have access to professional training courses, and inform them on the reality of emigration.

"The European Union works with the Senegalese state to fight against illegal emigration," says Pape Geye. "But there are no national policies to support our youth and prevent them from leaving, even if the days when those who left had all the pretty girls and nice houses."

There and back

"Go elsewhere? That’s smoke and mirrors," says Abdulaye Mar. This 50-year-old knows what he’s talking about. For seven years, he worked as a tailor in Morocco. Then, on the insistent advice of his family, he left for Spain. "I was supposed to earn more," he says.

Mar swam from the Moroccan coast to Melilla, the Spanish enclave in Morocco â€" a five-hour marathon of a swim only to get picked up, in the end, by the Spanish border guards, who handed him over to their Moroccan counterparts. They, in turn, took him and many others by train and bus to the Algerian border.

"I stayed a few months in Maghnia (an Algerian town near the Moroccan border) to have the time to recuperate financially and find a new way to get to Spain," he says.

Once he finally made it there, Mar worked odd jobs. He became a seasonal fruit picker, lemons, oranges or mandarins in the region of Murcia â€" often underpaid, sometimes not at all â€" before working as a cleaner in the company where his brother, who arrived a few months earlier in Spain, was employed.

"I even ended up receiving a residence permit, but I missed my family, my seven children, my country," he says. "Despite the poverty, we’re better off here, with our families. People need to know emigration can be a nightmare."

Yayi Bayam Diouf agrees. "The temporary work agreements in Spain, the Senegalese agricultural development programs, the young entrepreneurs support. None of that works," she says. "No matter how much we explain how dangerous it is, that the life of an emigrant isn’t pretty, young people are still leaving. Girls, too. More and more."

The call from the sea

What have slowed, thanks to new detection equipment used by the various coast guard services, are the hazardous trips in pirogues. Senegalese migrants are instead making their way to Morocco by land.

The most audacious go up to Tambacounda, in eastern Senegal, an intersection of roads that lead to Mali or Mauritania. The Dakar branch of the International Organization for Migration calls it "a real meeting point for emigrants from Senegal and the whole region." From there, the Sahelian networks get organized: Mali, Niger, Libya or Algeria, then Morocco until the Mediterranean shores â€" the gamble of smuggling, the hellish desert for days, or even weeks, hunger, thirst, sometimes death.

Mata, a 35-year-old car mechanic, will make it simpler. "All my friends have left for Spain," he says. "Two of them drowned during the crossing. But the others made it. With what they earn, they built new floors on their houses here." Mata is preparing his departure towards Mauritania, then onto Morocco. Another option is to sneak up there directly, hidden in the back of a truck.

"The Mauritanian roads are becoming too well-known," he says. “Now, there are roadblocks. The solution is currently to get on a Moroccan truck delivering fruits or vegetables in Senegal before returning empty."

Once in Morocco, he would then need to reach the coast thanks to smugglers who provide an inflatable dinghy and life jackets to cross the 18-kilometer-long Strait of Gibraltar. “Several people need to row strongly for an hour and a half, I’m training for this,” he explains, flexing his biceps.

How many Matas, Saadas and others does Senegal have? It’s impossible to establish precise figures for these illegal movements. The Senegalese authorities estimate 3 to 4 million of their citizens live, legally or not, abroad (out of a total population of 14 million). And, according to the World Bank, the money sent back by Senegalese immigrants amounts to 10% of the annual GDP. A real windfall for this poor country that isn't likely to dry up soon. In Senegal, the call from the sea is very load still. And very clear.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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