By Shola Lawal
In posts updated almost daily on social media, Senegal’s navy details how its patrol boat, Walo, reroutes vessels crammed with refugees trying to get to Europe. Photos show people disembarking from the boats, their faces blurred out: women in flowing chiffon dresses, barefoot children, a man wearing an “Mbour Sport Academie” shirt.
Last year, Senegalese authorities intercepted just one known boat headed for Europe. But just in the space of a week this September, more than 600 would-be refugees were turned back by the country’s navy, just as their canoes started inching across the turbulent Atlantic on a dangerous but popular journey.
The surge in the numbers of people headed off from the high seas highlights how the West African country – a major departure point for Senegalese, but also Gambians and Malians – is stepping up to stem irregular migration flows. Some 1,500 people have been transferred to local authorities since May, Senegal’s navy claims, more than 95 percent of all recorded interceptions in 2022.
Some experts say this increased action could serve as a model for other African countries, whose citizens now make up half of the top 10 origin countries for irregular refugee arrivals in Europe. Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and Egypt top the list. “African governments need to take a strong interest and act,” said Linda Adhiambo Oucho, director of the African Migration and Development Policy Centre (AMADPOC).
Migration to Europe is only a quarter of movement on the continent, but as the dead pile up in the seas, governments need to step up, Oucho says: “The African Union can use Senegal to show best practices and encourage a stronger regional approach to curbing precarious mobility.”
But others argue that by itself, stopping migration doesn’t address the underlying causes forcing people to move — and that initiatives like Senegal’s could grow into mechanisms for Europe to outsource its challenge of limiting refugee arrivals.
Surge in migrant arrivals in EU
Senegal’s efforts, part of a new action plan on emigration, come as Italy bends under the weight of a surge in arrivals on its coasts. In September, authorities there declared a state of emergency after more than 5,000 people arrived on the tiny island of Lampedusa in one day.
Flavio Di Giacomo, spokesperson for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), says sub-Saharan African migrants fleeing Tunisia following a spike in racist attacks make up the bulk of the landings. Their journeys, he said, are especially dangerous because they face discrimination from smugglers.
“Sub-Saharan migrants are forced to navigate on iron boats which are very fragile,” Di Giacomo said, speaking from Lampedusa. The iron boats are a new phenomenon, used by those who can’t pay smugglers enough. “After 12 hours they can break in two and people fall into the water, so we think there are a lot of ghost shipwrecks happening that no one knows anything about. Usually, Tunisians arriving from Tunisia can often use wooden boats which are a little safer.”
More than 180,000 people have arrived in Europe this year mostly via the West African Atlantic and Mediterranean sea routes. Over 2,000 people are dead or missing.
On Wednesday, the European Union agreed on a common migration pact. But to Di Giacomo, the question that countries need to answer isn’t so much whether people should migrate, but rather what safe pathways are available.
Heavy border protection has been the mainstay of the EU response so far.
“We need to change the narrative – migration is not a bad thing,” said Wendy Williams of the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS). “If countries looked at how to create opportunities or agreed on bilateral visa schemes, they would be able to better address this.”
Italy expanded one such programme this year. The yearly “Decreto Flussi” scheme, which lays out work visa quotas, will accept an additional 44,000 seasonal workers from a list of non-EU countries including Senegal, permitting them to work in sectors from agriculture to construction. The scheme, which is taking applications until December, would ensure that intending workers already have a job offer in Italy, and can travel to the country legally.
Is Europe outsourcing its migration challenge?
Although it’s unclear whether Senegalese authorities are getting funding from the EU, the bloc has publicised moves to partner with the country. Senegal has worked with the Spanish coastal guard to monitor transit routes since 2005 and is now in talks to partner with Frontex, the EU border agency accused of illegal pushback of migrants in distress.
In June, the EU announced it would strengthen border controls with African countries. By July, Senegal had formally launched its migration action plan, which had been in the works for years.
The 10-year blueprint aims to better prevent would-be migrants from leaving Senegal using tighter border controls, targeting smuggling networks and providing protection to migrants already on the move. Interior Minister Antoine Felix Abdoulaye Diome told reporters the country needs to “drastically reduce migration by 2033”.
“The migration plan looks good on paper, but it’s just another way for the EU to externalise its borders by paying African countries to do the policing,” said Williams of ACCS. The EU, Williams added, has a reputation for controversial partnerships on border control, including with Libyan armed groups. A recent deal between the EU and Tunisia, where sub-Saharan migrants have been racially attacked, has already drawn condemnation.
Senegal has entrenched democratic processes, is “more respectful of human rights, and civil society is stronger”, Williams conceded. But recent crackdowns on protests and opposition party leaders, as well as internet shutdowns, have smeared Senegal’s reputation as West Africa’s stable democracy.
In August, riots broke out after 60 people from the village of Fass Boye died at sea, with young people accusing authorities of responding too late to reports of a missing migrant canoe.
Oucho of AMADPOC pointed out another worry. The efforts to stop refugees from leaving Senegal by boat coincide with a push by countries to enforce an African Continental Free Trade Area aimed at promoting mobility. “People will always move and the risk is that once they cannot go through one pathway, they will find other, perhaps more dangerous methods,” she added. Her fear: If Senegal continues to ramp up border control and others in the region follow, people smugglers are likely to find other, possibly more dangerous routes.
Despite the navy’s efforts, many continue to take the risk. On Tuesday evening, a boat loaded with 280 people arrived in the Canary Islands from Senegal.
Experts say a holistic approach to migration would have to be one where African countries act independently of the EU, which they say often puts its own interests first.
“The truth is there might never be a sustainable way to address migration, but African countries need to work better to increase legal pathways within Africa,” Oucho said. “Perhaps West Africans could move to East Africa where I’m from to share fishing expertise and vice versa. When people move they bring challenges but they also bring talents.”