Migration is as old as Africa itself. People have always moved in search of a better life. The economic crisis in Africa fueled by development policies imposed on the continent by the World Bank, IMF and other donors is one of the factors forcing some Africans to undertake dangerous journeys to Europe in an attempt to improve their lot.
In some African cultures, travel is an initiatory act. One becomes a man when he leaves his family to go far to discover other people and other cultures, to confront the real world realities. This means going away from the comfort and care of a mother, far from the protection of a father. Going away is getting more experiences; coming back is enriching one’s group with what was learned in the other world. This culture brands the Soninkés – a crossborder community living between Senegal, Mali and Mauritania. In this area, the villages are empty. The houses resonate essentially with the laughter of women and children screaming. The men left. They migrated elsewhere. Soninkés are one of the most mobile people in Africa. Their mobility has lasted since the empire of Ghana (8th - 11th century).
In Diawara, a Soninké village located 800 kilometers from Dakar, more than 50 per cent of the population are French nationals. Almost all of them are returning migrants, who came back to resettle in their land of origin once their European or African courses ended. Those who have not returned yet left their wives and their offspring in luxurious residences. The houses that grow in Diawara breathe an unsuspected comfort. TV, refrigerator, air conditioner, etc., are behind the walls. So far from Dakar, in a rural area where poverty affects 70 per cent of the population , one cannot imagine this state of affairs.
Each month, from France, Germany, Italy or elsewhere, migrants send money for the monthly expense. Medical expenses, tuition, everything goes to ensure the family is taken care of. In Soninkés community, success in emigration is measured by the ease in which the family is left in the village. Remittances are considerable. In 2015, the World Bank estimated money transfers from emigration to $601 billion, including $441 billion to developing countries. In Senegal, around $2 billion has fueled this circuit. This represents more than the Official Development Assistance (ODA).
The money sent is not just for families. It also contributes to community development. Since the implementation of financial recovery plans imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in the 1980s African states have turned their back on social development investments, building neither hospitals nor health centers, schools, etc., but privatizing and firing hundreds and hundreds workers instead. These policies have began to change today. Africa is a continent where, for ten years, the growth rate turned at around 5 per cent, but the damage of the past is immeasurable. Reconstruction is difficult.
Getting my mother out of poverty
For decades, African people have taken their destiny in hand. During this period where states have deserted their social responsibilities, under pressure from Western countries and international financial institutions, community development had become a matter for emigrants. It is them who built schools, health centers and wells or funded drilled water towers. Those who take the path of exile today have the same hopes. They saw a neighbor or a cousin get 'her mother out of poverty' with the money earned in the emigration and they only have this leitmotiv in the mind when they embark on the road of the desert, through Libya or Morocco, that ends up in Europe.
Most of them have a starting point. They do not know their destination. They will settle where solidarity will offer them asylum. A lot of them will be lost on the way, dead of thirst in the desert or drowned in the waters of the Mediterranean. But none of them thinks about leaving and returning with empty hands. Rather die than have to face the eyes of those left behind.
These migration movements are not new. Migrations have shaped African countries and are part of their history. The first movements from state to state started since independence. Departures were not aimed at Europe. They were mostly internal to Africa. From West African countries, the main destinations were Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) in Central Africa. Today, two-thirds of African migrations are still within Africa and are directed to the oil producing countries such as Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, where the 'black gold' still deludes despite raids and deportations.
Migration to the North accounts for less than a third of migration from Africa, although thousands of Africans are among the 700,000 migrants who crossed the Mediterranean to land in Europe in 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration.
No job prospects
It was from 1970 that population flows to Europe started to intensify. Booming their economy, European countries needed labor to fill unskilled jobs. The image of the immigrant workers in automotive assembly lines or black garbage man in the streets of Paris started to make its way. Until the mid-1980s, there was no need for a national of the former French colonies to have a visa to enter France. In this freedom of movement, the flow of people was constant. With the possibility to go back home if needed, immigrants remained in Europe just for the time of labor, going back to their families for holidays. Family reunification was an unnecessary luxury.
The closure of European borders occurred at a time when African economies were entering a period of crisis. Economic and financial recovery policies implemented on the injunction of World Bank and IMF began to make effects. Unstructured, the states began to collapse. Unemployed graduates joined fired workers. For the thousands and thousands of young people who found themselves without perspective, emigration became the only solution. And the stream began to develop in the 1990s.
Europe, entrenched behind its borders, lives in an illusion of security. Borders cannot be sealed. Blocked by restrictions in the allocation of visas, African migrants found alternative paths. Via Morocco they made Ceuta and Melilla doors to new hope.
In Senegal, the history of these trips by canoe to Spain began anecdotally. In seeking the fish that was scarce on their coasts and in Mauritanian waters, the fishermen from Saint Louis found themselves off the coast of Spain, thousand of kilometers from their starting point. Their story then began to spread and other fishermen started turning into smugglers rather than searching fish in empty seas. They expanded their canoes, boarded hundreds of adventurers and launched illegal emigration. It reached its peak between 2007 and 2009.
Hundreds of illegal immigrants died, lost in the sea. The scandal would spread out before the world in 2006, when canoes cargo ended up in the sea, drowned or disappeared. Macabre stories accompanied their odysseys. Delirium and madness during the days at sea, detention camps for those who were able to disembark and forced return to the country after a failed adventure, without access to the most basic rights.
Those traveling through the desert do not know a better fate. Crossing the Sahara through Mali and Niger in the hands of adventurers, they end up in Libya or Tunisia, waiting for the boat that will take them to the other side of the Mediterranean Sea. Th odyssey sometimes costs €1,000 to €2,000, often funded through the tontine won by the mother, land titles sold by the father or jeweleries traded in the market.
At the time of the news, when the death toll of the tragedy spreads, a certain lassitude prevails in public opinion. By dint of hearing, death tolls no longer bring sorrow. Thousand deaths sound like one death. The body of a child who fails on a beach or the body of a pregnant woman rejected by the waves are hardly shocking. The dead are 'faceless' and their numbers remain abstract. It is when the drama enters a family or a village, that emotion exceeds the nod. The event is rare. Migration stories are sometimes too global and not linked to personal dramas. An Eritrean, a Syrian, or an Iraqi who disappears in the Mediterranean does not mean much to this side of the world. That’s why solidarity is so difficult to build in the South, to deal with this scandal.
African states' silence
Emigration is often a hidden drama. The story of the son that has gone remains secret until news of success can be told. And some families expect to hear from their son who has been missing for more than a decade, clinging to the hope that one day the news will break, saying he is alive.
At a global level, African states prefer to remove a question that is the sign of their own failure. Young people who leave, with the certainty of playing their lives at Russian roulette, materialize the bankruptcy of employment policies and the despair attached to lives with hopeless future.
Ten years ago, when countries like Senegal allied with European governments to get involved in the Frontex (European external borders) Programme, the candidates to migration said it was treason. The police patrolled along the beaches to abort attempts to leave by canoe. But the flow has not dried up. It diverted to feed the desert roads. Young people continue to leave. If Libya is the country of chaos, they think it is in this mess they most likely have chance to depart for a new life.
In April 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced the countdown to 1700 dead migrants just for this month. The silence of the African Union on this drama was indignant. The rare statements made in African capitals were limited to postures of regret and condemnation. Nobody offered ways for solutions. All awaited the European Union-Africa Union summit that took place in Malta in November 2015, to address the illegal immigration problem. Once again, the fate of the continent was under the good graces of others. The European Union promised 1.8 billion euros, pending African State contributions. But those billions are not the solution. They will run out, leaving the system that creates exclusion and misery.
The young Soninké will always think about leaving. Whether to Europe or to other African countries, they will fulfill their initiation.
* Tidiane Kasse is Editor of the French Edition of Pambazuka News.
1. Senegal National Statistics Agency (2015)
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