Accessibility links

Breaking News

Enforcement Fails to Slow Illegal West African Immigration to Europe


West African and European governments have been trying for the past year to stem the flow of illegal immigrants embarking on dangerous trips across land and water looking for work and a better life in richer countries. Naomi Schwarz has more from VOA's regional bureau in Dakar.

A record 31,000 illegal immigrants from West Africa reached Spain's Canary Islands in 2006.

Most arrived in rickety boats after a dangerous days-long journey across open ocean.

This year, fewer than half that number succeeded. This is due, in part, to the increased surveillance of the coastline by West African and European enforcement agencies.

Ahmed Ould Eleya is Mauritania's top police commissioner.

He says they are taking every measure possible to try to stop illegal migration.

But he says each time law enforcement agencies gain experience, the illegal immigration traffickers change their methods.

He says in one new technique, the would-be migrants evade detection by boarding small fishing boats in groups of two or three, then meet up with a larger boat away from the coast.

Mauritania has become a key transit point. As routes through northern Africa have become increasingly patrolled, illegal immigrants have begun leaving from further and further south, from Mauritania, Senegal, and Guinea-Bissau.

It is estimated that about 10 million Africans live and work illegally in Europe. Thousands die each year trying to reach the continent.

In a television commercial produced this year by Spain, viewers see an image of a young man washed up on rocks as they hear a Senegalese woman say she has not heard from her son in months. Spanish officials paid to air the commercial in Senegal, hoping to discourage would be migrants.

But young Senegalese say the dangers of illegal migration do not daunt them.

Modou Niang, 22, is a woodworker in Senegal's capital Dakar. He has tried twice to reach Spain illegally by boat.

The first time, he says the boat had mechanical difficulties in the middle of the ocean, and they had to return.

He says he was afraid, and they ran out of food and water.

But the experience did not stop him from trying a second time, months later. And after being sent back to Senegal by Spanish authorities, Niang says he will try again as soon as he has money. It typically costs hundreds of dollars to secure a spot on a Europe-bound boat.

It is staying here that is hard, he says.

In many countries in West Africa, salaries are low and more than half the population is unemployed. Those already in Europe are able to send back money to help their families and some return to Senegal to build houses and get married.

The director of the Senegalese-based government watchdog Aid Transparency, Habib Sy, says the surge of illegal migration in recent years can be linked to changes in West African economies.

Competition from big international fishing companies, for example, deprived local fisherman of income that had sustained families for generations. And as huge numbers of youth flock to African cities looking for work, jobs have become more scarce. Sy says efforts, such as selling imported clothing in city markets, are not very profitable.

"The state failed to create a space for these young people to be able to get a fair share out of those preliminary efforts of theirs," he said.

Sy says policing borders and allowing token legal immigration will not create long-term solutions. And he says publicity campaigns against migration will not work.

"They will not listen to you unless you put something on their plate," he added. "When you live in a family of 10, 12, where you see that mom and dad are no longer able to be the providers that they used to be, you feel compelled to do something about it. For you, waking up every single morning and having to look at this kind of stress, of misery, is just unbearable."

But some African voices are speaking out against illegal migration. These include rappers, artists, and mothers mourning sons who died attempting to make the sea crossing.

El Hadj Malick Ndiaye spent 11 days on a boat trying to get to Europe last year. But this year he took an even longer journey. He walked about 450 kilometers from Senegal's southern city of Ziguinchor to the capital, Dakar, stopping in villages and cities along the way to spread his message that Africa must develop itself, instead of running away to Europe.

He says he hoped Senegalese people would understand that they can succeed in Senegal as well as in Europe, and succeeding in one's own country is better.

But the news from December 2007 was not all that different from December 2006. Hundreds more Africans in boats were intercepted by police, and yet hundreds more drowned at sea.