The Mediterranean migrant crisis – The view from Senegal

“On the eve of his departure, he called me so that I could pray for him. After he spoke to me, he told his wife and two children that he was about to leave Libya for Italy. Unfortunately, the next call we got was from his brother who told us that he had perished at sea.”

“I gave my son the 350 000 CFA francs (approximately $750) for him to leave and succeed, and to get us out of poverty”


By Alain Roy
Deputy Director, Amnesty International Regional Office, Dakar, Senegal


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Those are just a few of the many testimonies gathered by the media here from relatives of the Senegalese men among the more than 800 who lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea during the night of April 19th.

How many Senegalese men lost their lives during that night? Nobody knows for sure as official numbers aren’t available.

Testimonies from survivors are often the only source of information available. Senegal newspapers have reported that at least 13 men were among the more than 800 who died when their boat capsized. But the numbers could be much higher.

The fact that Senegalese men are among the dead is not surprising. What’s new is that the coast of Libya is the new gateway to Sicily, to Europe and the possibility of a better life.

Before, it was the Strait of Gibraltar, then it was the Algerian desert, the Canaries Islands. Today it’s Libya. There are many reasons why young Africans want to leave.

  • Severe drought over the last 15 years have made subsistence farming impossible for many families.
  • Over-exploitation of fish, often by foreign fleets, have also led to a fisheries crisis which is reported to be one of the main cause of emigration from Senegal’s major fishing communities. “Barça ou Barsax” (Barcelona or Death) became a well-known rallying cry of Senegalese youths a few years ago, reflecting their determination to throw themselves in the Atlantic putting their lives at risk, a treacherous crossing powerfully described in La Pirogue, the 2012 film by Moussa Touré in which a group of African men leave Senegal in a pirogue captained by a local fisherman to get to Spain. 
  • The poverty, the lack of access to education, to basic services, and the lack of employment prospects make them see emigration as the only way to a better prospects and a better life.

Overall, the number of “departures” from Senegal is reported to have gone down during the last few years. One of the main reasons for this is the bilateral agreement signed between Senegal and Spain to patrol the coast of Senegal.  From the Dakar coast, one can regularly see the joint commission boats leaving to patrol the coast.  Media commentators here believe that shutting that route to the Canaries Islands simply led to the use of new inland routes through Mali, Niger and Libya. People here actually wonder how many more die crossing the desert on their way to reach the coast of Libya. 

One of the many infuriating things about this for the people of Senegal is that one of the key reasons young Senegalese tried to leave Senegal for Spain and the rest of Europe was the dwindling fish stocks, in part the result of uncontrolled large scale fishing by Spain and other European countries.

One woman from Dakar told me that people are also quite upset that so much money is invested in helicopters, boats, and paying officers to patrol Senegal beaches instead of investing the money into training or education for young Senegalese to keep them here.

As Amnesty International publicly stated recently, European governments must prioritize setting up an immediate search and rescue plan to effectively prevent the escalating death toll of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

More lasting solutions include expanding resettlement programmes for refugees from Syria and other conflict areas which would reduce the need for refugees to board smugglers’ boats. Creating safe and legal channels to the European Union and elsewhere would also help address the worsening crisis in the Mediterranean.

As long as conflict, human rights violations, and poverty continue to be the daily reality for many, there will always be young Senegalese, or people from other poverty or conflict-stricken country who will risk their lives in the hope of a better future.

In the long term, only comprehensive policies that support justice, development and fair distribution of resources can keep young Africans home, where they are needed.

For Amnesty International, this means continuing to work alongside poor communities and make sure that they have the necessary tools – including access to information and justice – to demand their economic, social and cultural rights.

For human rights activists, it means taking action to amplify the voices of those communities as they try to hold states and corporations to account for violations of their rights to land, resources, and access to services that are essential to the realization of their economic and social rights.

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Alain Roy, Director of Campaigns and Activism at Amnesty International Canada has been seconded for the year in the position of Deputy Director in the newly established regional office of Amnesty International in Dakar, Senegal. This is a personal account and the views expressed to not necessarily reflect the official policy of Amnesty International.



Photo credit: Frontex, IOM