Barcelona or death: the story of a Senegalese migrant

Publié: 17 février 2016 8:45 CET

By Moustapha Diallo, IFRC

With the help of some friends, El Hadji Diop draws alongside his small boat on the beach after a fishing trip. Again this morning, the fishing has not been profitable.

“I have caught very few fish and earned only $2 US dollars after spending two hours at sea,” he says. “It’s not enough to care for my family’s needs.”

El Hadji Diop lives in Thiaroye-sur-mer, a fishing village on the outskirts of Senegal’s capital, Dakar. Nine years ago, the village was the first in the area to witness a large-scale migration of people wanting to reach Spain by boat.

For the fishermen, the fishing sector was nearly dead and “Barça ou barzakh” (Barcelona or death) became the rallying cry as young Senegalese and other African nationals viewed Europe as the only option for their economic and social survival.

But the route by sea is very long and dangerous, and thousands of people die before arriving. According to Baye Ali Diop, President of the Association of Repatriated Illegal Migrants and Affected Families, Thiaroye-sur-mer recorded 374 deaths and 240 cases of people simply disappearing between 2006-2009. He himself has lost eight family members including his son, nephews, and grandchildren.

El Hadji Diop has also lost relatives to the treacherous journey. He attempted the crossing himself in 2006 and made it as far as the Canary Islands. The boat was overcrowded and sometimes the weather conditions were not favourable. Over the course of the five day journey, nine of the migrants drowned. “We just prayed for them and threw their corpses into the ocean because we did not want to take any chances with diseases,” says El Hadji.

Upon arrival in the Canary Islands, El Hadji Diop was arrested, along with the other passengers, and kept in a detention centre for illegal migrants. “We were given food and shelter but we were not free. We had to comply with a set of rules and regulations.”

"I am not a thief. I just wanted a better way of life."

He remained there for 42 days before being repatriated following the signing of an agreement between the Senegal and Spanish governments. “What really hurt me the most was to go through the humiliation of being handcuffed during our repatriation. It was not necessary. I'm not a thief. I just wanted a better life.

“We received so many promises when we were being deported, but we saw nothing. No training, no income generating activity. We were given a sandwich and $2 US dollars at the airport,” says El Hadji, barely concealing his anger.

Now married with twin children, the 29-year-old is the elder of his family. It is his responsibility to care for their needs.

“I want to stay here in Senegal but there is no opportunity. I have been a fisherman since I was born and I know only that, but today the fishing does not bring us anything.”

Like El Hadji, many traditional fishermen in Thiaroye-sur-mer are also discouraged as they have only their nets and rudimentary equipment compared to the modern equipment the big Western and Asian boats are using. For most of them, “it’s better to try something else.”

The sea route to the Canary Islands is now blocked through an agreement between the EU border agency Frontex and the Senegal government. But many Senegalese men, particularly the young men, do not see their future at home. Some eke out a living through fishing, others have graduated from university but remain unemployed. They are desperate and continue to try to reach Europe, now usually via Libya.

Knowing the dangers they will face, El Hadji has helped create an association to warn potential migrants of the risks they will face if they try to get to Europe illegally.

“I know some young people who left and some of them were sensitized by our association about the dangers, but we could not give them any other alternative,” says El Hadji. “Not one of us is trying to commit suicide by attempting boat emigration. We do so because we have hope; hope for a better life. That is the only thing we have left. And if tomorrow I find a way to successfully emigrate, l will leave again.”

Between January and November 2015, 5,212 Senegalese reached Italy, departing mostly from Libya, according to the International Organization for Migration.

25 per cent of the world's migrants are in Africa. In 2013, that amounted to more than 15 million people. As they leave or flee their homes to seek opportunities, protection or safer and better lives, their decision to go may be voluntary or forced. Both involve a combination of choices and constraints. Migration is a growing phenomenon that affects every country. Learn more about the migrant crisis.