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For Senegalese Villagers, Illegal Immigration Can Be Deadly

  • Kari Barber

Tens of thousands of Senegalese and other West Africans left their homes and set out for the Canary Islands during the past year, hoping to find economic opportunity. The journey by small boat is long and hazardous, and many are lost at sea. Educators and women's groups in Senegal are trying to persuade young men not to risk their lives, but desperate emigrants say they will continue to try to find a better life outside Africa. Kari Barber reports from Thiaroye, a Senegalese fishing village.

Fishermen heading out to sea in their small wooden boats once filled the beaches of Thiaroye. But foreign trawlers moved into nearby waters, catches declined and the local fishing industry dried up.

Young men have been leaving in droves, hoping for better-paying jobs in Europe. Most set sail for Spain's Canary Islands, more than a thousand kilometers away, through often turbulent seas. The journey claimed the lives of more than 150 villagers last year, according to a local tally, and most of those who survived were detained and forced to return home.

Schoolteacher Talla Gnang says he understands why so many want to leave Thiaroye. "This is the kindergarten. And this is for the teacher -- a broken chair. This is why most of the teachers are thinking of going to Europe or the U.S.A. You know, clandestine immigration."

Gnang studied in the United States but returned to the village once he qualified as a teacher. "Everybody wants to go away. And I said to myself, 'OK, after my stay in the U.S., I will go back home.' I told my parents about that and they said, 'No, no, no, no. Please don't come back. Stay there and make money and send us money.' I said, 'No, father, I'm going to come back.'"

Talla Gnang says persuading Senegalese to stay in the country is difficult.

A three-story house was built with money sent by Mamadou Fall's older brother, who works illegally in Spain. Mamadou Fall tried to reach Spain twice -- once by land and once by sea -- but authorities in Morocco detained him both times. Now he helps deported migrants like himself. Fall says he would stay in Thiaroye if there were any jobs, but he has given up trying to sneak into Europe.

Instead he is trying his luck with the U.S. "green card" lottery, hoping to win permission to live and work in America.

So many young men from Thiaroye have been lost at sea that their mothers have formed a support group. The women are making a local grain meal to sell. With their primary financial providers gone, their lives have become more difficult.

Arame Leye joined the group after her son left on a boat headed for Spain last year, and was no longer heard from. He left after the birth of his first child, saying he wanted to provide his new family with a better life.

Arame Leye says she believes her son is dead.

With her son's income gone, Leye sells pancakes to make a living, and to feed the baby girl her son left behind. She says she prays none of her seven other children will tempt the sea by setting sail in a search for a different life.

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