On A Voyage Of Peril To The Mirage Of Europe

On a voyage of peril to the mirage of Europe

On a remote beach in west Africa, men clamour to board a boat for a 1,250-mile crossing to the Canaries. In a dramatic dispatch, Hannah Godfrey, in Diogue, Senegal, hears of their hopes for a new life – and of the fears that mass emigration will ruin Africa

Sunday November 19, 2006
The Observer

All around is darkness and silence. The nearest village is a 20-minute walk away through paddy fields. But here, on this small beach, is a throng of activity. About 100 men are clamouring around a dugout canoe on the sand. Out in the bay a larger vessel is waiting. It is an open wooden fishing boat called a pirogue. Already at least 50 people are aboard. Their fates are now in the hands of the sea and the Spanish immigration authorities.

Back on the beach, the men – Senegalese, Ghanaians, Guineans, Gambians – are vying to join them on the arduous journey to membership of the underclass of illegal immigrants living on the outskirts of European society.

The village of Diogue, in the Casamance region of southern Senegal, is inaccessible by road; only boats can get in. Vast stretches of mangrove swamp separate it from the rest of the country. Diogue's palm-lined shores used to be a minor tourist destination, but the collection of shacks is no longer so attractive. Nowadays holidaymakers, mainly French and Spanish, watch from a nearby island as endless boatfuls of men are ferried to the peninsula on their uncertain way to Europe. Until recently Diogue's economy depended on shark fishing, the fins sold in the Far East. But the industry has fallen into decline, a victim of European overfishing.

Now the village economy has found a new source of income: emigration. The hopefuls have to stock up on water, food and other supplies for the voyage, which can take two weeks. There are bargains to be had as the young men who are leaving sell anything they will not be needing where they are going – local currency is exchanged for euros at less than the going rate and mobile phones are dirt cheap. Many struggling fishermen have sold their pirogues to people-smugglers. But once the money has been spent, they find themselves with no way to make a living.

Following last year's clampdown on migrants trying to make it overland to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco, or across the Strait of Gibraltar, large numbers of boats have been heading instead for the Canary Islands – the nearest piece of European soil to the coast of sub-Saharan Africa. A recorded 4,715 Africans arrived in the Canary Islands – mainly Tenerife – in 2005; this year the figure is more than 19,000. Between 35 and 40 per cent of them are from Senegal. The others are mainly from Mali, Mauritania, Gambia, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau.

Patrols around the northern Senegalese town of Saint-Louis, and the capital, Dakar, have pushed departures ever further southwards. Throughout the summer between one and three pirogues left Diogue every day to cross the 1,250 miles to the Canaries. Two boats have left this week, despite the fact that the weather is no longer favourable, and even Senegalese fishermen hesitate to go out to sea. The large pirogues are made to carry 80 men on fishing trips, but when they set off for Europe they are usually laden with 100-140 people. The further south the departure point, the more dangerous the voyage. It is estimated that this year 5,000 Africans have lost their lives trying to get to the Canariess in the boats – one in six of those who attempted the journey. There is no way of knowing the real figure.

Fallou is 14. He was on a boat bound for Europe that turned back because of bad weather. Being in the Atlantic in an overloaded pirogue is a terrifying experience. But Fallou has being hanging around in Diogue for a week trying to have a second go at making the crossing.

'I'm doing it to help my parents, who live in terrible poverty,' he says flatly. He wants to become an engineer. 'Here there are so many people who are qualified, who have a university education, and who just can't find any sort of work. I don't want to make my life in Europe, just to stay there for a few years and make some money, then I'll come home.' Is he not afraid of leaving his family and everything he knows and finding himself alone in a potentially hostile environment, or even simply of the sea? 'No, I would do anything to help my parents.'

Forsten, Edward and Isaac are a little less fearless. They are from Ghana, but have been in Gambia for the past year, working on a building site to save the 400,000 CFA francs, the currency of Senegal and other former French colonies, charged for the trip to Europe (about 400).

All Forsten has with him is a half-filled plastic bag of his belongings. He is aware of the dangers of going to Spain in a pirogue, but he says that he has no choice – his life in Ghana is little more than a day-to-day struggle for survival, 'and I can't see that ever changing'.

Edward and Isaac managed to get on a boat leaving from Diogue, and were off the coast of Mauritania when a huge storm blew up. Everyone in the boat – including the 'captain' – was so terrified that they decided to head back to Senegal. Two people died in the course of the voyage from exhaustion and sickness. Their bodies were thrown overboard. 'It was like we had become animals,' Edward says afterwards. 'I realised that it wasn't worth degrading ourselves, and risking our lives just to get to Europe, even though it means the end of our hopes of finding a way out of the dead end we are in. There is no work for us back home.' They know that the jobs they left in Gambia to go to Diogue will have been filled by others.

Not only have they lost their dream of a better life, Edward and Isaac have also lost the money that they had worked for a year to save up – the man who organised the voyage refused to reimburse them. Now they set off on the long journey back to Ghana. Isaac has a Spanish phrasebook tucked into his plastic bag. Will they make another attempt, once they have got some more money together? 'When we were on that boat we saw into the pit,' he says. 'We were so tightly packed in there that no one could move. There were a number of us who couldn't speak to anyone, because we didn't share the same language. After the storm the supplies of food and water began to run out. Most of us had never been at sea before. We were ill and scared, and then the people started dying…' His voice trails off. 'I can't describe how awful it was. Nothing is worth that.'

Pathe Manga, 20, is unemployed and has been fixated for a long time on the idea of getting to Europe. He tried to get to Spain through Morocco, but was captured by the Moroccan authorities, who dumped him in the Sahara desert. Shortly after arriving back in Senegal he got on a pirogue heading for Spain, but his boat also got caught in a storm and had to head back. Four people died.

A people smuggler has to spend about 25m CFA francs to organise one voyage from Senegal to the Canaries. The boat itself needs to be bought, as well as fuel, two motors, a GPS navigation system, food, and water. Many people-smugglers even spend a million CFA francs on getting the vessel 'protected' by a marabout – a cross between a witch doctor and a religious leader.

There are few people in Senegal who don't know, or know of, someone who has emigrated to Europe. The few who have made enough money there to buy a big house in an upmarket district of Dakar inspire others. Most who take the pirogues have a contact who is already in Europe – maybe working in a market garden or a building site in Spain – and has promised to help them find their feet. And who doesn't want to believe they won't be one of the lucky ones?

Back in Diogue, Salif, 20, sits in the shade of a huge baobab tree drinking tea. He is a fine young man, but he is unemployed and pessimistic about his future. Salif, though, is angry to see so many young men of his generation get swallowed up by what is known as 'Europe Madness'. To him, leaving for Spain on a boat that is not designed for such a crossing is, 'a way of committing suicide'.

He asks: 'If you're in Europe and you have no family there, no working papers, what do you have? Nothing. Think what these people could do if they pooled the money they would have given to a people-smuggler… they could set up a modest business.' For Salif, although life here is hard, 'it is home. We are part of a community in which everyone helps each other out. If a stranger comes we invite him in to eat, we offer him a bed, it's not like that in Europe'. Many think the same way. Only three young men from Diogue have left to go to Spain in a pirogue.

But those from elsewhere who have left their families to make the long and arduous journey just to get to Diogue are not about to give up now. Back on the beach, some are using the darkness to scramble unseen onto the canoe that is ferrying people over to the large pirogue – only those on the boat-owner's list of people who have paid up for the journey are allowed on board.

Tensions mount. Everyone is shouting and a man who works for the smuggler gets onto the canoe brandishing a stick. A fight breaks out. Eventually the pirogue is filled up, and we watch it disappear into the night. On the way back to the village Paps Sane, a well-respected member of the local community says: 'Three boats left on the same day a few weeks ago. We have heard from people who travelled in two of these, but no one from the third has rung home.'