In Senegal, some fishermen abandon migration dream as Europe's pull dwindles

Nearly a decade ago, Senegalese fisherman Mor Mar embarked on an illegal sea voyage to Spain, hoping a better life awaited him in Europe.

Along with 80 other would-be migrants, each of whom paid smugglers at least $500, he left in a large wooden pirogue from neighboring Mauritania, surviving on rice, biscuits and water until coming within 200 kilometers (125 miles) of the Spanish coast.

High, violent waves turned the boat back, and Mar, 39, never tried to make the crossing again.

Now following news reports of the more than 1,800 migrants who died this year trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, Mar says he learned long ago to resist Europe's pull, having been turned off by stories of limited opportunity and high unemployment.

"A lot of young men who managed to get to Europe didn't succeed in building something for themselves back in Senegal," he said. "They say the situation is very difficult there."

Mar's views on migration are shared widely in his native Thiaroye, a fishing town on the outskirts of Senegal's capital Dakar that 10 years ago was one of the first in the area to record large-scale migration to Europe.

Pape Omar Diouf, a town elder, remembers how the initial trickle of migrants soon turned into a rush. "Nearly every day, we were recording departures. Young people were distraught because the fishing industry was nearly dead," he said. "The dream of going to Europe animated everyone until the deaths started to multiply."

The sheer number of people presumed to have died en route played a big role in dampening the fishermen's enthusiasm. They now focus on trying to support themselves at home, difficult though it might be.

"We currently earn between 3,000 and 10,000 CFA francs per day (between $5 and $17) after fierce efforts at sea, but we prefer to limit ourselves to that," said fellow Thiaroye fisherman El-Hadji Cheikh Ndoye.

The lure of Europe remains strong elsewhere in Senegal, however.

About 2,300 Senegalese made the perilous land-and-sea voyage to Italy between January and June this year, according to Jo-Lind Roberts-Sene, head of the Senegal office for the International Organization for Migration.

The organization helps the government coordinate the return of migrants, and in the past year or so has repatriated about 400 Senegalese who had been seized while working in Tripoli.

In the months to come, Senegal's government plans to more actively discourage people from joining the wave of migrants. The government intends to bolster economic opportunity at home through initiatives such as developing new farms employing up to 40 people each, Sory Kaba, a top official responding to the current migration crisis, told journalists in May.

In Thiaroye, fishermen see their sector as a great potential source of jobs for Senegal's youth — provided the government takes steps to protect them.

"We are always under siege by larger boats that plunder our fishing resources," Ndoye said. "The state needs to protect us more to keep us in the country."

While the fishermen don't wish to migrate now, Mar said there is no guarantee that will remain the case if opportunity stagnates: "If the state does nothing for us, it must be expected that young people will go back into the pirogues."


Associated Press writer Carley Petesch in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.