Migrants from Senegal

If You Don't Make It, It's Your Own Fault

There is a strong incentive for many Senegalese to come to Europe illegally. Even if they are only able to keep their heads above water with minimum-wage jobs, migration is still a success story for many of them. Moritz Behrendt explains why

There is a strong incentive for many Senegalese to come to Europe illegally. Even if they are only able to keep their heads above water with minimum-wage jobs and are among the lowest earners, migration is still a success story for many of them. Moritz Behrendt explains why

The usual suspects are waiting at the airport: the Red Cross and the police. But the airport was not Yakhia Fall's true destination. He had wanted to land in Madrid or Milan, not on the dusty runway of the Aeroport Léopold Sédar Senghor in his hometown of Dakar.

The Red Cross vaccinates Fall and the other Senegalese repatriates, the police takes down their personal details and gives them 10,000 West African francs each as "welcome money," around 15 euros. Not much for someone who had set off over a year ago to seek his fortune in Europe.

Terminal stop Ceuta

Fall's itinerary is similar to that followed by many Africans on their way to Europe: A flight to Rabat as "tourist," and from there a few detours on the way to Ceuta, the outer frontier of Fortress Europe. He camped out in the woods there in a makeshift shack. For an entire year.

Fall says he can no longer remember how often he tried to get into the Spanish enclave on Moroccan soil: by sea, over the fence, through the fence. Every time one of the smugglers read off his name in the evening, Fall's hopes rose anew that this time he would make it. But now it's all over:

"I never had a chance, I failed," says the 27-year-old. Just knowing that is what hurts the most. More than all the abuse he suffered at the hands of the Moroccan police, who dragged him and many other black Africans out into the desert in October 2005.

As all the wrangling over the repatriation agreement with Spain shows, the Senegalese state does not welcome the emigrants back with open arms. Pape Niang from the Migration Ministry explains his government's official stance: emigration yes, but legally please. However, this is only wishful thinking.

Money transfers from migrants fill state coffers

More revealing are the figures that the civil servant reels off back in his office with a view over the Place de l'Independance in downtown Dakar. The numbers demonstrate primarily one thing: how dependent the country is on the money transferred by migrants. According to his figures, almost two million Senegalese live abroad, Niang reports.

In 2004, they transferred 500 million euros to their homeland over official channels. How much more was brought into the country via unofficial routes in order to avoid taxes is hard to gauge. The officer at the "Ministry for Senegalese Abroad" sums it up thus: "The transfer payments by now exceed development aid in this country. We therefore have absolutely no interest in limiting emigration."

Lavish spending

Migration is a success story for Senegalese society. The fate of those who return with empty pockets is, comparatively speaking, nothing but an annoying byproduct. Large newspaper ads offer repatriates from Europe luxury apartments in Dakar's prime residential locations.

Those who have made their fortunes abroad drive around in flashy cars and spend lavishly on their trips home.

"We live in a culture of appearances. Everyone tries to show how well-off he is, even if it's not true," comments historian Cherif Ba.

My house, my car, my money – all warnings are useless in the face of these enticements. The migrants would rather not tell their countrymen about the price of their success: a life full of deprivation in a strange land, racist insults, degrading work, often in illegal jobs. These things are of secondary importance; they put up with it all to support their families back home.

Upside-down worlds

"The life of an African migrant is a constant balancing act – outside their country they are poor and back home they are among the wealthiest members of society. And they really are rich by Senegalese standards, even if they earn only 1000 euros a month in Europe," says Laurence Marfaing, migration expert at the Center for Modern Oriental Studies in Berlin.

Soldiers of fortune like Fall cannot expect to encounter any sympathy for their plight back home in Senegal. "Never come back poor – there's enough poverty here already!" – this motto conveys the expectant attitude of those who remain behind.

Marfaing has likewise observed this pressure to succeed: "The emigrants don't come back until they feel they can make a triumphant show in their homeland." Those who return empty-handed earn at the most reproaches or sneers.

A Senegalese woman recounts with amusement how her brother hid for five days without food in the hold of a ship. Then he couldn't take it anymore. He turned himself in to the crew and was promptly sent home. "Hello, I'm back!" – the woman's dramatic re-enactment of her brother's despair is greeted by roaring laughter. If you don't make it, it's your own fault.

Better to die than come back empty-handed

Yakhia Fall paid 2000 euros for his emigration attempt: the plane ticket to Rabat, the smugglers' fee. To come up with the money, he sold his small mobile phone shop in the Dakar suburb of Pikine and borrowed from relatives. He has no idea how to pay it all back.

The majority of those repatriated from Morocco come from villages in the southeastern part of the country. Many have sold entire herds of livestock to finance their expatriation – an apt symbol for putting their entire livelihood at stake – only to lose everything. "They can't bear to return to their villages; they will do anything to get back to Ceuta. They think it's better to die than return empty-handed," says Fall.

As absurd as it sounds, he is longing to be back in his shack made out of boards and plastic sheets. "As soon as I get a chance, I'll try to leave again," he vows.

Moritz Behrendt

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

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