Go North, Young Man, Go North!
Even African 'success stories' like Senegal want their citizens to seek their fortune in Europe, because it's easier than giving them a chance at home.
TAMBACOUNDA, Senegal — On a busy street in the heart of this southeastern Senegalese town sits a travel agency with a bright blue façade. Inside, Abdoul Hadre Fofana sells bus tickets from a makeshift cardboard window. The various West African destinations on offer include Bamako in Mali, Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, and Abidjan in Ivory Coast.
By far, the most popular route is a one-way ticket to the city of Agadez in northern Niger — one of the main staging points for sub-Saharan migrants headed north to Libya and then on to Europe. Bus fare to Agadez is around $140, and Fofana has sold more tickets in the last year than he can ever remember selling.
“It’s good business, very good business,” says the young salesman, gesturing to an old roadmap of Africa with peeling corners that is tacked to the wall. “We can easily take you all the way up to Agadez. We tell you how much money, water, and food to bring with you. And we help you with contacts up there, who can provide accommodation and help you travel further.”
The booming transport sector in Tambacounda reflects the desire of Senegalese, and other residents of the region, to seek their fortune in Europe. But it also reflects the tacit approval of some governments in sub-Saharan Africa that they do the same. It’s no accident that the Senegalese government’s most recent development plan, released in February 2014, explicitly touts the economic benefits of outward migration.
Rather than do the painstaking work of restructuring their economies to offer their citizens better opportunities at home, Senegal and its neighbors have preferred to look the other way as their citizens head north, the better to maintain the flow of remittances in the other direction.
Senegal, which is often referred to as Africa’s “model democracy,” saw more of its citizens — nearly 6,000 — reach the Italian coast in 2015 than any other African country not embroiled in conflict besides Gambia, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). It also received more than $1 billion in remittances from Europe, accounting for 8 percent of GDP, according to the government. Migration experts say the real figure is probably two or three times higher, since suitcases packed with cash, laptops, and mobile devices brought home by migrants go unaccounted for in the official tally.
“I’d say remittances contribute for about 35 percent of the Senegalese economy,” says Aly Tandian, who leads a migration research group at Gaston Berger University in Saint-Louis, Senegal. “There are a lot of villages … in Senegal, where the economy is almost solely dependent on remittances. And this number will continue to rise if the economy doesn’t improve soon.”
One such place is Missirah, a sleepy village in southwest Senegal where roadside merchants sell roasted sweet potatoes, stacks of soap, and basins full of colorful beads. Donkey-drawn carts and bicycles teeter down the main road, which connects the capital city, Dakar, to neighboring Mali. One could easily drive through Missirah without noticing that virtually the entire village has been funded through remittances from Europe.
“The state is failing us. It’s nowhere to be seen in terms of providing for our basic needs, so we took matters into our own hands and started a partnership with our friends and family in Europe. Now, our contacts in Europe pay for our schooling, food, and health care,” says Mady Biagui, a cheerful merchant in his early 30s who owns a small grocery shop on the village’s main road. “In all honesty, we are completely dependent on migrants in Europe. Everything we own comes from them.”
With the funds sent back by former Missirah residents living abroad, Biagui was able to set up a foundation that provides basic community services like garbage collection and primary schooling — services the Senegalese government has failed to provide. Biagui’s comrades in Europe even funded the construction of a mosque, he said, proudly pointing to the tall white building with green trim in the center of town.
Almost every family here has ties to Europe. The Kanté family, which counts 40 relatives across the Mediterranean, is by far the wealthiest in Missirah. Their block of houses, which has expanded over the years, is festooned with a spider’s web of electrical wires and overgrown with satellite dishes.
“Alhamdulillah, praise be to God,” says Kafodé Kanté, a contented 75-year-old family elder. He sits in the shadow of his courtyard, surrounded by relatives who are dressed in colorful robes and playing with shiny new smartphones. “Thanks to our brothers and sons, we have everything we need.”
But not everyone in Missirah is as fortunate as the Kantés.
“We have no income from Europe,” says Bima Bouroug, watching chickens and children run amok in his shabby yard. What little money he earns comes from selling metal from rusty old bikes, he says.
“We worry a lot about our children’s future,” adds Bouroug’s wife, Asta Diarra. The couple’s eldest son left for Spain 10 years ago but didn’t manage to find a job. They reluctantly sent his brother to help, but he is thought to have drowned in the Mediterranean on his way to Italy last spring. They have three other sons, all of them younger than 12. “We don’t want our children to leave,” says Diarra. “But what can we do? We need the income.”
So intense is the pressure to head north in search of employment that it can be difficult to find working-age men in a place like Missirah. Biagui, the main-street grocer, is the exception that proves the rule. According to official figures, 1.2 percent of the Senegalese population left the country between 2008 and 2013, with 44.4 percent of émigrés heading to Europe. Nearly three-quarters of them did so in order to find work, according to a 2013 study by Senegal’s National Agency of Statistics and Demography. But these statistics are incomplete: Those traveling along clandestine routes or evading registration upon arrival in Europe go unaccounted for in official tallies, suggesting that the percentage of Senegalese leaving the country is actually much higher.
“If you can’t find a job close to home, you go looking elsewhere,” says Tandian. “Young people feel forced to leave for the benefit of their family and are therefore prepared to take a lot of risks.”
Papa Diop, the deputy secretary at the Senegalese Foreign Ministry’s migration directorate, admits that unemployment is the main driving force behind the exodus of young people. “Even though there is a mining industry and lots of work stimulating initiatives by the state, it’s proven not enough to curb the unemployment rate, which is why a lot of people leave the area by means of illegal migration routes,” he told Foreign Policy in an interview. “[Migration] is a problem, but it’s also an opportunity. Our work here is to manage these two aspects of migration.”
Senegal has struggled for years with disappointing growth figures. According to the World Bank, the economy has expanded at an average of 3.3 percent over the last decade, “well below the rate necessary for significant poverty reduction.” Youth unemployment hovers around 14 percent, according to official figures, and close to half of the population lives in poverty. In regions like Tambacounda, the poverty rate exceeds 60 percent.
As vital of a lifeline as remittances are for Senegal, they may not be a reliable income source forever. African countries are under mounting pressure from Europe to contain migration outflows. An international summit on migration between European and African countries was held in Malta last year with the aim of improving cooperation between the continents. Meanwhile, the European Commission launched a $2 billion emergency trust fund designed to curb migration by improving employment prospects in African countries while simultaneously taking aim at smugglers. Senegal is expected to benefit from the fund, with three projects in the pipeline worth more than $15 million.
But absent a major economic revival, it seems doubtful that Senegal will be willing, or able, to wean itself off of remittances. The development plan issued in 2014 makes plain the government’s focus on persuading the growing diaspora to participate in development initiatives.
Diop says the government is currently working with the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental group that deals with the issue, on a new plan to curb outward migration that will include awareness programs as well as work and educational initiatives. But right now, Senegal has no formal migration policy, and there is little to stop young men from buying a bus ticket from Fofana’s travel agency in Tambacounda and setting off for the desert road.
“I’m sorry to say this, but there is no migration policy in Senegal,” says Tandian. “There is a lot of talk, but clearly there is no real will to understand, analyze, and find solutions for potential migrants. How many people leave, who they are, and where they go: We do not know. This lack of knowledge is the root cause of the migration problem we face today. And it takes a lot of effort to overturn that.”
Image credit: DESIREE MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images