Locked and barred?

The “Welcome Point for Refugees and Immigrants” in Dakar, Senegal, was set up at the initiative of the brothers from Taizé some twelve years ago in collaboration with the parishes and religious communities of the city.

Dramatic events occurred last October, when some 2,000 African migrants attempted to enter European territory by storming the fences that surround the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, Spanish cities located on the North African coast and adjacent to Morocco. Security forces opened fire; at least 11 people died and scores were injured. Since then, the migratory flows of would-be emigrants from sub-Saharan Africa have changed rapidly. They no longer go northward across the desert, a route that turned the urban centers of Tamanrasset (Algeria) or Agadès (Niger) into lively departure points. Over the past few years, an alternative route had begun to be exploited, through the Western Sahara. Huddled among the dunes along the coast, people would wait for calm in the ocean waves, then with a bit of luck in two days they might arrive in the Canary Islands, which are Spanish, part of Europe! In Dakar, we still recall the case of the woman from Niger, who had set out almost at full term in her pregnancy and gave birth right on the beach as she arrived, after the hardship of the journey and a rather bumpy landing, to a baby who was therefore “Spanish.” With the rights attached to the baby’s nationality allowing family members to join it, the whole family had reached its goal.

Things have changed a lot since then. Morocco has closed its frontiers and Nouadhibou, the westernmost port of Mauritania, has taken over, finding itself invaded by hoards of would-be travelers, most of them from the countries of the Sahel but some from much further away. There is now no question of hiding, as in the past, in the holds of ships headed for Europe with the risk of being discovered in the early hours thanks to police tear-gas bombs. Now we are in the era of the small motor-boat. Two outboard motors, a couple of GPS systems and some fifty passengers embarking under the very nose of the police will do. Now it takes at least five days of dangerous navigation, heading north first of all, not too far from the coast in order to avoid the Spanish coastguards’ ships and not too close so as to escape the Moroccan police. Putting into port here and there before the main crossing. That is when many boats disappear: rotten hulls, failing motors, navigations systems swept away by the waves, unreliable pilots ... all it takes is a sudden gust of wind. Everyone has read dramatic escape stories told by survivors who are interned on the spot and repatriated if only their nationality can be determined.

A few weeks later, there was another change. Spain offered logistical support to Mauritania to reduce if not prevent the departures. The increased supervision closed down operations. At once things moved further south. At St-Louis, in northern Senegal, two fishing-boat owners who have converted into human trafficking (“there are no more fish”) were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. From then on people even set out from Dakar. That means that the journey has grown increasingly longer, increasingly dangerous, and expensive. There is talk of over 350,000 Francs cfa per person (about 450 euros), the same as a plane ticket for Europe. Currently this is the best season, the sea is calm and there are usually few storms, so there has been a rush. Last May 6-7, in one weekend four hundred people landed in the Canaries, where the police and Red Cross are overwhelmed. Another factor that only makes things worse is a report that Spanish law forbids the repatriation of minors. So the immigrants are younger than ever, there has been talk of two brothers from Mali, 13 and 14 years old, sent by their family and who, fortunately, arrived safely. They phone with their family every other week! In the suburbs of Dakar reports circulate, recruiters are busy, the police are on full alert.

What of the future? It seems clear that Europe, depicted as being under siege, will continue to pile on the pressure and offers of aid in the hope that African governments can reduce or stop the flood at source. Draconian frontier checks, forced repatriations of those from neighboring countries, it looks as though perhaps the “freedom of movement of persons and goods” proclaimed so loudly by the Community of the States of West Africa, an important step toward the much-dreamed-of unity of the continent, may become the first victim of these efforts. So Africa would find itself little by little locked in on itself. Yet surely it is an illusion to think that in such ways it might be possible to put a stop to such a movement, born of such desperation?

Never before has the Welcome Point for Refugees and Immigrants run by the Dakar Caritas Organization had to look after people from within Senegal. But now there is a new category of people asking for help, those who have been deported or forced back. Driven out of Morocco or Mauritania, they end up in Dakar, utterly at a loss. In order to attempt the journey to Europe, they had to take out a loan or were financed by their family or village; they set off bearing the hopes of a whole group. Now they have failed, they have lost everything, they are crushed by shame. There can be no return to their village, where they would be confronted by their creditors, and how could they repay them? To say nothing of seeing the attitude of others toward their failure. So here they are, refugees in their own country, without resources or family. And with hearts full of an insatiable desire for revenge on Fate. They will do anything as they try to get across the barriers that are being made higher and higher. In just one weekend this May, the Senegal navy stopped 1,500 people who had set out for the Canaries.

Last updated: 26 May 2006