Immigration’s Siren Song

by Elizabeth Dickinson and Pete Martin:

An eerie silence held the summer night in the Thianoye-sur-Mer district of Dakar as the community gathered for an odd kind of funeral. The victims were plentiful but the corpses absent. A circle of mourners, men on the right and women on the left, wore white and recited Koranic prayers.

On the shores of Africa (Dickinson/TYG)

Members of the Senegalese community held a service in honor of twelve young men who had recently died trying to cross the Atlantic. The gathering was the first funeral in the neighborhood, but it would certainly not be the last, as men continue to leave for Europe each day.

It was no coincidence that there were far fewer men than women in Thianoye for the funeral. The same is true on Dakar’s streets and in many of its households. In communities across West and Northern Africa, young men go abroad in order to provide for their families. The most recent torrent of immigration from Africa to Europe, beginning in the spring of 2006 and continuing unabated, has strained communities and governments on both continents. While immigration brings workers to Europe and remittances to Africa, tensions in the communities follow close behind. Caught between economic needs and social realities, both continents—and their people—have coped with immigration ambivalently.

Homegrown Immigrants

The site of the funeral in Thianoye is only a five-minute walk from the shoreline. Just blocks away, disguised behind hanging sheet partitions, is a compound famous among young men because, at some point, it has housed many of them. In just a handful of rooms, 100 young men make their beds. Most are already economic immigrants, having traveled from rural areas to the urban job market. Here, they await yet another wave of immigration—this time, to Spain.

The Red Cross estimates that as many as 100,000 Senegalese, mostly young men, are waiting to depart for Europe, either driven by desperation or lured by the opportunity that Europe promises. Villages and cities up and down the Atlantic coast in Senegal, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya have seen an exodus of workers to Europe in 2006. Immigrants from coastal cities travel the 600-mile journey by sea. Those from further inland move north on land to the tip of the continent, where they take a short 9-mile boat ride to the Sea of Spain.

The immigrants’ destinations vary. Most popular are the Canary Islands, an autonomous community of Spain, because they are close—they lie only 70 miles off the Moroccan coast. But they are also attractive because of a particular loophole in Spanish law. If immigrants are not processed and returned within 40 days of their arrival, the law entitles them to be released to the mainland. In June, local Senegalese newspapers reported that at least 2,300 immigrants were allowed into Spain under such terms. A year earlier, in 2005, Spain gave work permits to 700,000 illegal immigrants who had been living and working in the country for at least six months. The next generation of immigrants hopes that another generous gift of citizenship will follow.

Migration has become a way of life for West Africans. Young men are leaving rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa at a faster rate than they are in any other part of the world. A survey published in 2001 by the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa estimated that urban populations in West Africa will increase from 14% in 1960 to an expected 60% by 2020. The prosperity of rural agriculture is waning, as young girls and, in particular, young boys—overwhelmingly between the ages of 15- 25—depart for the educational and economic prospects promised in cities.

Although the opportunities of the metropolis exceed those of many rural villages, migrants still struggle after their arrival in the city. Within the crumbling walls of the Dakar compound, boys spoke to one another about feeding their families—an economic burden that they bear increasingly with age. The boys, some as young as 10 or 12, make about $4 a day and $20 in the tourist season to send home to their parents in the villages. Three young men spoke about caring for as many as 30 dependents in their “elastic families.”

As they scour the urban job market for work with limited success, emigration is the next logical step. It is a choice fueled not only by economic necessity but also popular perception. Many of the richest neighborhoods are populated by families who have someone working abroad. The media has dramatized this reality, equating immigration with opportunity and exodus with hope. From popular music stars like Youssou N’Dour, to academics, to politicians, nearly every exemplar of success has spent significant time abroad.

Nor have national politics offered incentives for youth to remain in Africa. In Senegal, Morocco, and Mauritania, governments were elected by promising opportunities that have failed to materialize. “When a person does not have access to the economy, to healthcare, and to the human services that he needs to survive, how can we expect him to stay? The pressures are too great,” Moustapha Niasse, who served as prime minister of Senegal from 1978 to 1984 and from 1993 to 1998, told The Yale Globalist.

Palais, a Dakar youth who earns a living guarding a private beach, agreed with Niasse’s assertion. “Listen, 90% of the Senegalese, if they had the chance, they would go,” said Palais. He has lived in Sierra Leone and Liberia working as a tradesman, searching for a better living in other West African coastal cities.

Although emigration is not in his plans, Palais is familiar with the process. In the spring of 2006, a sea captain approached him, asking Palais to recommend hopeful immigrants to the captain. Immigration is a booming industry, and a prosperous network of human traffickers has appeared to serve the demand. Men can buy a trip abroad for several years’ worth of savings—anywhere from $500 to $3,000. Palais recounted the process: the Senegalese captain gives the immigrant a telephone number and hides on an island off the coast. The immigrants assemble at two or three o’clock in the morning to embark. Their vessels range from being wellequipped, with GPS systems and hearty meals, to being empty. Estimates vary as to how successful trips have been, but the BBC reported in September 2006 that between 1,000 and 2,000 men had been lost at sea in 2006.

The Difference a Journey Makes

Having men abroad can either sustain or destroy a family. Many of these immigrants send back enough money to support their families, sometimes enough to save or invest in a better home or business. Between 1995 and 2005, remittance payments into sub-Saharan Africa tripled, rising to an estimated $8 billion, according to the World Bank. In 2005, remittances made up nearly 7% of Senegal’s GDP, compared with an average 2% for all developing countries.

The benefit of cash sent home comes not only from higher wages but from exchange rates that favor foreign currencies over the weak West African bills. Even a meager salary as a blue-collar worker abroad far exceeds the highest paying jobs at home. A young man attending the funeral in Thianoye articulated why so many of his neighbors had left. “When we see so many nice houses from our neighbors abroad, what are we to think? If I want to buy a villa working here, it will take my life—but only a few years if I am sending money from abroad,” he said.

Earning enough for those villas requires sacrifice, not only for immigrants but also for those who are left behind. As foreign currencies flow in, the cost of living rises, making it even more difficult for those still in Africa. Young men are marrying later and later, an indication that they cannot earn enough to afford marriage before their 30s or 40s. And because it is often the most talented and ambitious young men who leave, communities are losing their most valuable asset to economic growth.

With men increasingly absent, the burden of generating income falls on the women who remain, who also find themselves charged with the task of caring for dependents. And when their husbands or sons die at sea, as up to 10% of those who try to emigrate do, the dependence on these women is intractable.

West Africa is placing its bets on the uncertain gamble for wealth abroad. At home, parents often encourage their children to emigrate. A woman selling fish in a Dakar market told the Globalist, “If I had a son who wanted to go, I would be in agreement with his decision. He could help me out.” But that thought led her to a more immediate reality. “The women are tired,” the weathered fish vendor said, for they bear the economic and familial burdens at once while men are away.

The View from Across the Way

“Immigration has always been a part of Europe, but not on such a large scale,” said Mohammed Baba, co-founder of MEXIT Intercultural Management in the Netherlands and the son of a Moroccan immigrant who remained in Europe. “Beginning with guest worker programs, there used to exist an idea that immigrant workers were guests who would return to their home countries. But as these guest workers stayed in Europe, bringing and raising families with them, both native Europeans and immigrants began to realize this idea was not realistic. This change has largely occurred in the last five to ten years.”

And most immigrants stay in Europe, despite strong ties to home and the frequent sending of remittances back to Africa. European concerns surrounding immigration range from fears of economic drain on generous welfare systems to racist and chauvinistic attitudes toward newcomers. Due to these factors, the word “immigrant” evokes a negative image for 50% of the French, according to a recent survey conducted by the French Ministry of the Interior. And between the spring and fall of 2006, the number of respondents who cited immigration as the first or second most pressing concern facing Europe rose from 12% to 17%.

With arrivals coming from nearly every country in northern and western Africa and settling in as many European countries, policy towards African immigration has proven to be extensive and divisive, particularly when the conflicting interests of countries have caused them to autonomously enact differing policies on immigration.

Explaining the difficulties surrounding legislation on immigration, Stefaan De Rynck, a spokesperson for the Commission of the European Union, told the Globalist that EU members have trouble coordinating immigration strategies. “National political pressures, which are different in each country; strong desires for national sovereignty throughout Europe; and general legislative inertia are major obstacles to a collaborative immigration policy,” he said. De Rynck noted that each country currently has veto power over all EU legislation, making it difficult to pass EU-wide laws. However, European countries might soon experience a change in their willingness to work together. According to De Rynck, “the recent events in Spain [the mass immigration to the Canaries and the decision to grant amnesty] may contribute to more collaboration in the future, as more countries are saying, ‘This is our border, not just the Spanish border.’”

With the EU so far unable to coordinate immigration policy across the continent, individual countries have enacted differing policies. Spain’s decision last year to grant amnesty to over half a million illegal immigrants came shortly before France cracked down on illegals, in part by evicting illegal immigrants living in what French officials euphemistically refer to as “sensitive urban zones”—in reality, abandoned buildings on the outskirts of Paris. Such differences in policy concern many in Europe because of the free movement of goods and people within the EU established by the 1985 Schengen Agreement. Much as increased patrolling along one coast often just leads immigrants to depart from or arrive at a different coast, amnesty granted by one country will push or pull immigrants from country to country within Europe, an effect termed “squeezing the balloon.”

Realizing it cannot rely on the governments of Africa to control the hundreds of thousands of immigrants, the European Union has brought in its own forces in the name of Frontex, the EU’s border security agency. Though based in Poland and often used to patrol the EU’s land borders in Europe, much of the agency is currently deployed off the western coast of Africa. In September, Frontex had eleven boats, two planes, and two helicopters patrolling the coasts of Mauritania. Senegal, and Cape Verde, effectively assuming Africa’s border security.

Policy in Action

Politicians in Africa are torn between stopping and condoning immigration. Many of the immigrant-exporting countries are still highly dependent on Western aid and hence reluctant to anger European sentiments. For example, Mauritania received $305.7 million of aid, an amount equal to nearly three-quarters of the government’s annual budget.

Yet at the same time, many economies are built on the diaspora. Mahmou, one of the only adults living in the Dakar compound, explained, “When someone goes, he is going for us—for us, the Senegalese. He is going to ameliorate our situation.” One example of the clear connection between emigrants and locals is the realty boom in Dakar, Senegal, which is keeping thousands employed in construction projects. Expensive new homes are popping up along the shoreline and await their new owners, returning immigrants having made their fortunes.

Youthful constituencies are in favor of immigration, and have loudly opposed repatriation agreements with European countries. Beginning in June 2006 and continuing into October, repatriated immigrants in Senegal have held protests in the Senegalese cities of Dakar and Mbour. A particularly vocal demonstration took place on October 6 after 2,000 hopeful immigrants were repatriated in the span of three weeks. Protesters told the Senegalese newspaper Le Matin that the repatriated received nothing but a sandwich and bus fare from the government when they returned.

Immigration has sparked violent political debate in the runup to the 2007 Senegalese presidential election that will test the country’s allegedly stable democracy. Opposition parties are taking sharp stabs at the ruling power, under President Abdoulaye Wade. On October 9, 2006, a local paper, L’Observateur, printed that Abdoulaye Bathily, an influential professor at the University Anta Chiekh Diop in Dakar, said that emigration was proof that the government in power had failed to live up to its promises. In short, political stability could easily prove an illusion.

Complicating policy in Africa, European governments, lacking a unified front, often push African countries in opposite directions. African immigration policies are at least partially dictated by this external pressure. For the last few years, Morocco has come under pressure to patrol its coastline in an attempt to stop illegal immigration to the Canary Islands. But most upsetting for many Moroccans is the country’s defense of two Spanish enclaves on the North African coast. The Moroccan government, as well as the Spanish government, guards these small borders, going so far as to shoot at immigrants attempting to cross.

The Moroccan government has been met with strong criticism from its people because of these hardline policies. Protesters outside the Parliament building in Rabat, the nation’s capital, have complained that Morocco helps police for Europe at the cost of Moroccans and even Africans from other countries, thousands of whom travel overland through the northern coastal countries on their way to Europe.

While Europe has high demands of African governments, pressure from citizens to allow, and even assist, immigration has prevented African governments from cooperating with Europe unwaveringly. Hoping to avoid domestic unrest, these governments must balance desires to attain goodwill in Europe and at home. More practically, many African governments rarely have the resources to implement immigration policies on their own. In countries like Senegal—where unemployment is 48%, and 54% of the population lives below the poverty line—governments lack the resources to play a very active role in stemming the flow of African emigrants.

Yet immigration policy in Africa is not entirely a result of disagreement. In July, delegates from 58 countries in Europe and Africa convened in Morocco to develop strategies for combating illegal immigration. Though the discussions were largely uncreative, focusing on increased border patrolling in the short-term and economic development in Africa as a long-term method of slowing migration, collaboration between countries, both African and European, was a new and positive development.

The Tales They Tell

Towering above his three-seated fishing boat, it would have been difficult to imagine Lamil Diaw as a passenger squeezed inside, riding the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. Just a few weeks ago, however, Diaw was in just this position, eyes cast on the Canary Islands. After his 600-mile journey from Senegal, water leaked in through cracks of the vessel and the passengers ached with hunger. Lamil and his fellow immigrants never reached the Canaries. Instead, they returned to Dakar disappointed. One of Lamil’s friends stood beside him as he recounted the tale, nervously prodding him in Wolof. “Lower your voice,” the friend pleaded.

The story of migration from Africa to Europe is far from a single narrative. It is the story of the people, most young and male, who risk their savings and their lives in hope of reaching Europe, where they rightly imagine economic opportunity to be far greater. And, naturally, it is about the countries they move to, and the communities they form while in Europe. But it is equally the story of the countries, towns, and families left behind. Often desperately poor, the futures of these communities are integrally tied to the fate of immigration.

“Lower your voice,” the friend repeated. Lamil’s friend did not want to hear about the journey’s failure. He hoped to depart for Europe in a few days. He will not be alone. All too aware of the harsh policies and perilous voyage that await them, thousands of young West Africans are still looking north and embarking on the same journey.