Migration in Senegal: Societal visions instead of criminalisation and the rhetoric of deterrence


In the last few months, more than 500 migrants have lost their lives trying to leave West Africa for the Canary Islands and thus Europe, in a terrible repeat of the situation of 2005/2006. In 2006 alone, more than 32,000 migrants set off on the perilous journey from the coast of West Africa hoping to reach the Canary Islands across the sea.

Migration in Senegal: Social visions instead of criminalization and deterrence of rhetoric

“But how many kilometres, how many laborious days and sleepless nights stand between me and the uncertain success that my family has so clearly expected ever since I said I was going to France? My footsteps are heavy with their dreams and my head is full of my own.1

In the last few months, more than 500 migrants have lost their lives trying to leave West Africa for the Canary Islands and thus Europe², in a terrible repeat of the situation of 2005/2006. In 2006 alone, more than 32,000 migrants set off on the perilous journey from the coast of West Africa hoping to reach the Canary Islands across the sea.³

Senegalese civil society organisations have joined forces within the collective “Lu waral lii” (Wolof for “what is the real reason?”) in the face of this re-emerging migration drama and what they consider to be the inadequate response of the government and international donors. “The absence of a migration policy geared towards these issues translates into steering on sight and transformed the country into a gulf of billions of obtained from international cooperation”, the collective laments in a press release dated 3 November. It takes a clear stance against the criminalisation of migrants and urges the state to “find adequate responses to the needs of young people for decent jobs” and to take effective action against rising social inequality, aggravated further by the consequences of the pandemic.

Given the enormous amounts of money that have been invested in migration management in recent years, one of the collective’s demands is for the government to publish all migration projects, together with their budgets and responsible ministries. It calls for an audit of the funding that Senegal has received in recent years under the heading of migration and for a labour migration policy to be put together. Most of all, the civil society organisations regret the fact that the responsibility for the dramas unfolding in the Atlantic is attributed chiefly to the migrants themselves.

In Senegal, the tragedy of a 14-year-old boy whose father sent him off to Europe to become a footballer in Italy attracted much attention. The boy became ill and died during the crossing and was then buried at sea by his fellow travellers. His father was sentenced to two years in prison, one month firm. But to impute all moral and legal responsibility to the father alone is short-sighted – extremely dangerous, likely even fatal migration journeys are not least connected to the criminalisation of migration and a certain structure of border policy, as stressed by a press release by the migration networks migreurop and Loujna-Tounkaranké dated 1 December 2020:

“Deaths and disappearances on the borders cannot be attributed solely to ‘unscrupulous smugglers’, ‘irresponsible NGOs’ and ‘parents who were unaware of the risks’. The European Union and its member states must take stock of the consequences of their migration policy (…). Tougher border controls (…) are making migration more and more difficult and are the cause of the emergence of the smuggling ‘industry’ and the resulting deaths and disappearances”.

It was not until the end of November 2020 that Senegal signed a deal with Spain to work together to tackle “illegal migration”. Under the deal, amongst other things, Spanish police officers are to be deployed to Senegal.4

Criminalisation and a rhetoric of deterrence have shifted migration routes, but do not shut them down at all

From 2007, tougher border monitoring, particularly by the European border protection agency FRONTEX, led migration routes to be shifted via Mali, Niger to Libya and, from there, across the Mediterranean.

Since 2018, however, the number of migrants taking the so-called West African sea route has risen once more: 2,698 migrants reached the Canary Islands in 2019.5 By the end of October 2020, this figure was already 11,000.6

In the mid-2000s, a lack of prospects, societal pressure and disappointment at the then government of Abdoulaye Wade, who was felt by the young people of the country to have broken his election promises to them, were the main factors that motivated many young men to try their luck on the opposite shore.

President Macky Sall has been in power since 2012, when he successfully stood against a third term for Wade, backed by broad support from the opposition, civil society and the youth movement “Y en a marre” (‘Had Enough’; article in German only). Sall is now – just as Wade was in 2005/2006 – in his second term of office and young Senegalese people are still leaving the country on wooden fishing boats in search of a better future in Europe.

More than 300 million euros for migration projects with limited success

What have the government of Senegal and international donors done in the last 15 years to offer prospects to young people? Why is it that in 2020, with the coronavirus pandemic continuing to ravage Europe, young Senegalese are still chosing this perilous journey?

One answer was supplied by the study “An avalanche of funding with mixed results” (French original title “Une avalanche de financements pour des résultats mitigés”) by Dr. Mamadou Dimé on Senegalese migration policy between 2005 and 2019, on behalf of the Dakar office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. The study showed that in the 14 years under review, more than 300 million euros were invested in the field of migration, mostly between 2015 and 2019 in the framework of the EU Emergency Trust Fund for stability and addressing root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons in Africa (EUTF for Africa). The principal purpose of these investments was to halt migration through better border controls, improved living conditions in the country of origin and support for returns.

Funding for migration projects and programs in Senegal, 2005-2019
Fig.1: Funding for migration projects and programmes in Senegal, 2005 – 2019 (in billions of CFA; 120 billion CFA ~ 183 million euros).

The study concludes that the projects and programmes carried out in Senegal under pressure from international donor organisations are in fact “anti-migration programmes” rather than the expression of a coherent migration policy. Since 2018, Senegal has had a so-called migration policy, which was drafted by initiative and with the funding of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and has still not been validated politically. Former minister and former Deputy Director-General of the IOM Ndioro Ndiaye spoke scathingly of the paper in early September: “it is not even a policy, it is a compendium of projects!”7

On paper, the Sall government’s national development plan, the “Plan Sénégal Emergent” (Emerging Senegal Plan) contains many projects for youth training and job creation. In reality, however, numerous state agencies and programmes, all aimed at creating jobs for young people, tend to be set up shortly before elections, as a way of securing votes – but ultimately do very little to improve the lives of young people. In response to the current boat migration phenomenon, Macky Sall announced a new structure, the Conseil national pour l’insertion et l’emploi des jeunes (Cniej), aiming to support young people in their search work.

At the same time, young people are increasingly frustrated with their own government, which does not seem to accord any day-to-day priority to tackling youth unemployment. The fishing sector offers significant opportunities for men on fishing boats and women in fish processing, especially along the coast of Senegal. Even before Covid-19 hit, Senegalese fishermen reported frequently that foreign fleets were fishing Senegalese waters empty. In October 2020, a Greenpeace report entitled “Seasick: While West Africa is locked down by Covid-19, its waters remain open to looters” (“Mal de mer: pendant que l’Afrique de l’Ouest est verrouillée par la COVID 19, ses eaux restent ouvertes au pillage”)showed how Senegalese fishermen were not permitted to work themselves during lockdown, while international trawlers fished their waters right under their noses.

The problem runs deeper than “just” a lack of jobs

The lack of a migration and development policy squarely geared towards the needs of the Senegalese population is the symptom of a deeper problem.

It is a combination of a number of issues: young people who are disillusioned by their government and politics in general, and not for the first time; a society that until today equates success with migration to Europe and that prizes everything from outside the country above the homegrown; a society in which families and parents expect already from youths to provide financially for their relatives, as the country has no adequate social security system; a country that has still not found its identity since its independence in 1960. In addition to this fragile identity of the country, which is all too frequently still caught up in neocolonial structures, as activists from “Frapp France Dégage” point out, comes the absence of a joint societal vision: what makes Senegal worth living in and how do we want our lives here to be in the future? The postponed generation change in political parties and institutions, but also civil society, continually accentuates these shortcomings.

The lack of direction for Senegalese youth and the feeling that they are not taken seriously by their government has fed in recent weeks into the reactions to the migration crisis.

Many Senegalese consider that government reaction came far too late, demonstrating that migration is not a political priority. Migration researcher Dr. Mamadou Dimé describes this reaction on the part of the government of his country as a “lack of all humanity”. Instead of providing psychological and medical help to stranded migrants following their sometimes traumatic experiences at sea, they are arrested on the spot as soon as their boats are intercepted by the Senegalese coastguard or run aground on the shore.

A day of national mourning on social media out of disappointment at the government’s reaction

Instead of a public reaction by the government as a whole to the more than 480 deaths in the last few months alone, President Macky Sall kept his focus on his political objectives and dissolved his government at the end of October 2020, on purpose to lure long-term political opponent Idrissa Seck into his camp as President of the Conseil Economique, Social et Environnemental (CESE), thereby neutralising him as a rival in the presidential elections of 2024. All of this political manoeuvring took place without wasting a single word on the migrants who had lost their lives just days before and steered the focus of political debate away from the victims. Furthermore, the Minister for the Interior questioned the figures of the International Organisation for Migration (OIM), which reported a shipwreck with the highest death toll on 29 October 2020, with more than 140 casualties. The President did not react on the accident on twitter, but offered his condolences to the families of the 16 victims of a road traffic accident, who were killed on their way to celebrate the major Muslim feast of Mawlid (Birth of the Prophet), and to the President and population of Turkey following the earthquake in the country. Not a word about the migrants who perished off the coast of Senegal.

Shocked at this refusal of the government to put right the shortcomings of its policy, to express sympathy for the dead or to offer any real prospects, Senegalese Internet activists use the hashtags #LeSenegalEnDeuil, #DeuilNationalSN, #WhatshappeninginSenegal to call for 13 November 2020 to be a day of national mourning on social media, for the more than 480 people who had died by that point in time.

How could success in Senegal be redefined? Seeking a connection between migration and sustainable development

The current situation makes it abundantly clear that migration cannot simply be stopped. People cannot be “fixed” in a single place. Increased border monitoring without societal change and decent prospects in the countries of origin simply reroute migration, making it more dangerous and causing more people to die, as illustrated in the press release quoted at the beginning of this article.

Instead, there should be a societal discussion of how success is defined and can be possible in Senegal as well as other places, together with fundamental changes in Senegal’s migration policy and those of the international donors, including legal migration channels, also allowing circular migration between Senegal and the EU. This new migration policy should see a fundamental shift in focus, moving from a rhetoric of deterrence and awareness campaigns on the risks of “irregular migration” to institutionally assured governance of migration in the framework of internationally binding migrant rights. Migration’s contribution to national and local development should be used and promoted in a much more targeted way.

The Covid-19 pandemic has painfully shown how much Senegal, like so many other countries of the world, depends on food imports, but also on the money sent home from its diaspora overseas. At the same time, the global pandemic and the climate crisis, the effects of which are already evident in Senegalese agriculture, show us that we need to stop the overexploitation and depletion of nature. Countless people in Senegal have lost their jobs in the informal sector, and also in the tourism industry, as a result of the pandemic.

Against this backdrop, fundamental changes in Senegal’s migration policy and a societal dialogue mean that the government must take responsibility and stand up for the rights and interests of its own population, against international investors in the fishing industry, oil exploration and, in particular, in the field of migration policy. Creating jobs in Senegal is not inconsistent with transforming society into a sustainable, solidarity-based development; it is a fundamental part of that transformation. A central pillar of a new migration policy should therefore be supporting training in areas needed by the Senegalese economy in its transition to sustainability. This ranges from agroecology via sustainable architecture and construction, right the way through to recycling, vocational training in the field of renewable energies and promoting local production, processing and consumption.

The cultural centre DEKANDOO in Gandiol, in the north of Senegal, which was set up by one-time boat migrant Mamadou Dia following his return home from Spain, shows how profitable migration can and should be, in every respect. Migrants can be major players in sustainable development and the socio-ecological transformation in Senegal. DEKANDOO is based on principles of sustainability and combines ecological construction with artist residencies, sustainable tourism and social projects within the region.

If, back in 2006, Mamadou Dia had had the opportunity to go to Spain through legal and safe channels, to work there and then to return to Senegal at a time of his own choosing, he, his family and countless others would have saved themselves a lot of money. He could still have returned to Senegal with the experience of his time in Spain, plus the money that he would have earned there as a legal resident, but he would not have had to risk his life getting there in the first place.


This article was first published in German on boell.de.

[1] Fatou Diome (2006) The Belly of the Atlantic.

[2] International Organisation for Migration (IOM): 2020 Death Toll in West Africa Sea Route Tops 500 Amid Uptick in Departures

[3] International Organisation for Migration (IOM)
According to newspaper reports, at least 600 people died in 2006 trying to reach the Canary Islands from West Africa. Estimated numbers of unrecovered casualties are believed to run into the thousands. (
Short, 2007)

[4] Deutsche Welle: Plus de 500 morts entre octobre et novembre, selon l’OIM

[5] International Organisation for Migration (IOM): Senegal — Monitoring of movements to the Canary Islands — Movements and Departures from Senegal (1—30 September 2020)

[6] International organisation for Migration (IOM): Deadliest Shipwreck of the Year Claims at Least 140 Lives

[7] Ndioro Ndiaye in an e-panel on Senegalese migration policy, organised by the civil society network REMIDEV and hbs Dakar (video in French)