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Senegalese risk lives in migrant exodus despite stability at home

SEGOUCOURA, Senegal (Reuters) - Mahamadou Diaby lost his savings of $4,000 in a failed bid to reach Europe that saw him smuggled across the Sahara by migrant traffickers before being shot by police and thrown in jail for six months in Libya.

A group of Senegalese illegal immigrants, who according to authorities will be deported back to Senegal through the border with Tunisia, are held at the Alkarareem immigration centre in the east of Misrata February 26, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

Back in his sun-baked village of Segoucoura in Senegal - a peaceful but poor West African nation - the 23-year-old says he would do it all over again.

“I say thanks be to God that I am back and didn’t die,” said Diaby, surrounded by his family. “But if I see an opportunity to go again, I will try ... I cannot just sit around with the old people.”

In total, almost 2,000 illegal migrants have perished on the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Italy so far in 2015. Diaby’s story is typical of the complicated motivations of thousands of Senegalese who risk their lives each year.

Senegal is the sixth largest nation of origin for migrants so far this year, according to the International Migration Organization (IOM). Ahead of it are Eritrea, Somalia, Nigeria, Syria and Gambia -- countries fraught with conflict or concerns over rights abuses.

By contrast, Senegal is among Africa’s most stable democracies, with a 5 percent economic growth rate that would be the envy of many European nations.

Yet Diaby, sitting in the shade outside his family home, said he always dreamt of escape. He applied three times unsuccesfully for a visa to France.

“Ever since I was young, I wanted to go to Europe,” said Diaby, clutching papers folded neatly in a dog-eared envelope. “Here, I work but I don’t earn any money. I want to go to Europe to help the family.”

Diaby’s impoverished region of Tambacounda was home to two-thirds of the 541 Senegalese migrants repatriated from Libya by the IOM in the first four months of the year. In Segoucoura, elders say 70 to 80 young people have left since January.

While in Senegal’s capital Dakar, 500 km to the west, glossy malls and high-rise buildings are springing up, Segoucoura is a collection of mud brick buildings whose 2,000 inhabitants get by farming millet and selling a few sheep.

Two-thirds of the population of Tambacounda live in poverty, compared to less than half on average in the nation of 15 million.

While hardship is a factor driving young men to leave, so too is a quest to replicate the success of migrants who send money back home. Diaby, like many young men here, hoped to join friends and relatives in France.

The largest homes in Segoucoura are built by those who have emigrated. The only electricity is produced by the solar panels that crown the roofs of such houses, powering television sets that offer a seductive vision of life in the West.

“There are no jobs,” said Abou Badji, 35, who works with the local branch of the civil society youth organisation Y’En A Marre (We’re Fed Up). “These people think migration is their destiny.”


Sory Kaba, who heads the foreign ministry department dealing with Senegal’s citizens abroad, admitted that an official unemployment rate of more than 25 percent was a contributing factor.

But like many experts, he says a history of migration, coupled with pressure to improve the lives of families back home, pushed thousands of Senegalese to emigrate.

“It’s not misery that’s driving migration because if you are really poor you can’t pay this money,” Kaba said, referring to the thousands of dollars migrants must pay to make the journey.

For many migrants, the lure of Europe is the prospect of securing a better life not just for themselves, but for their families. Many relatives encourage young men to emigrate and even finance their trip, hoping to reap the benefits.

Each year Senegalese nationals send an estimated 800 billion CFA francs ($1.37 billion) home, Kaba said. And according to the most recent World Bank data, foreign remittances accounted for over 11 percent of gross domestic product in 2011.

Mahamadou Camara has lived in France since 1993. Today, he has French residency but spends three months a year in Segoucoura visiting family, including two wives and eight children.

With the fruits of his labour, he’s built a large family home; a 4x4, another symbol of his success, is parked inside the compound’s walls. One of his sons recently joined him in France.

“It’s like this that we earn money,” Camara said, with pride.

Other migrants financed a health clinic in Segoucoura but locals said the nurses who came to work there found life so desperate that they left. The clinic’s gate now stands padlocked.


Julien Brachet, an expert in migration at France’s Research Institute for Development (IRD), said many young migrants simply wanted to escape the tedium and restrictions of village life, but were unwilling to admit that in public.

“When you leave, you have to have a socially acceptable reason,” he said. “Comments about self-realization are not acceptable when you talk with people in your village.”

In Segoucoura, the success stories of those who send back money from Europe are tempered by the constant reminders of the tragedies along the route.

Khady Sigmaté, a 50-year-old wearing a pink headscarf, said she had not heard from two of her sons and a nephew for a year and a half. She has no idea if they made it to Europe alive.

“I would never let my children leave now,” she said.

The Program for Support for Solidarity Initiatives for Development (PAISD) works with Senegalese migrants in France who want to invest in their home communities.

In the town of Tambacounda, Senegalese migrants in France financed a centre to train young men to repair motorcycles, one of many such projects throughout the region.

For PAISD’s Raphael Renault, these schemes encourage residents to stay: “They are less tempted, if you will, to leave the village, to say there are no opportunities here so I will leave.”

Yet for those who find themselves returned to Segoucoura, opportunities seem scarce. Nfamara Diawara, a father of three, was repatriated from Libya by the IOM recently at his own request after suffering abuse at the hands of traffickers.

Now, sitting outside Camara’s sprawling green and white compound, his options seemed stark.

“Today, I woke up,” he said. “I want to return, I have nothing here.”

Additional reporting by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Joe Bavier and Giles Elgood