DAKAR, SENEGAL - Hundreds of Senegalese migrants have been flown home in the past week, saying their dreams of a new life in Europe were dashed after they crossed the Sahara desert only to endure the hell of imprisonment in Libya.
Some came home heavy hearted, hungry and broke.
For others, home was better than making it to Italy after all, given the grueling desert crossing, brutal beatings and deaths of fellow migrants they had encountered en route.
“Coming home feels better than getting to Italy,” said 30-year-old Mohammed Gueye, swigging from a bottle of water while filling in forms with aid workers and state officials ahead of the migrants’ return to their homes and families this week.
“It was hell in prison, everyone broke down eventually. I cried and gave up hope,” Gueye told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the capital of Dakar, as he recalled watching his peers die of hunger and illness during nine months in detention.
Gueye was one of more than 160 migrants, mainly young men in their 20s, who arrived in Dakar late Tuesday, wearing hoodies and woolly hats, looking unkempt, tired and dazed.
Libyan prison, forced labor, exploitation
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Senegalese government helped to release the returnees from detention centers in northern Libya, run by criminal gangs or Libyan troops, where some migrants were held for up to a year.
At least 20,000 migrants are detained in Libya, the main gateway for those headed to Europe by sea. Rising numbers are traded, in what they call slave markets, for forced labor and sexual exploitation, according to the IOM.
Yet driven by poverty and a lack of work, a rising number of Senegalese are risking their lives to reach Europe via Libya.
More than 10,000 Senegalese migrants arrived in Italy by boat last year, up from 6,000 in 2015, IOM data shows.
The voyage from Libya across the Mediterranean to Italy, most cross the sea on flimsy boats run by people smugglers, has become the main route to Europe for migrants from Africa after a European Union clampdown last year on sea crossings from Turkey.
Help at hand
Many of the migrants gathered in the airport hangar in Dakar spoke not only of the hardships endured in Libya, but also of the hellish 1,200 km (750 miles) trek through the Sahara.
At least 40 West Africans died in the desert last week after their truck broke down in arid northern Niger, the Red Cross said. More migrants may die in the Sahara than in the Mediterranean, according to migration tracking group 4mi.
“The Sahara, it’s another reality,” said Thierno Mendy, 37. “There were 30 of us crammed into a jeep with little to eat and drink for a week ... I saw dead bodies along the way,” he added.
More than 500 Senegalese migrants have returned home so far this year from Libya or Europe through the IOM’s voluntary repatriation scheme. About 1,800 people were flown home in 2016.
Travel money, re-integration
The IOM gives the migrants cash for their journey home within Senegal, and has a community re-integration program to invest in projects such as sustainable agriculture and poultry farming, which support whole communities, not just the returnees.
“Given the sums of money invested in the journey (as much as $3,000), and our strategy to benefit the wider community, we don’t see such a scheme as a push factor for migration,” said Jo-Lind Roberts-Sene, IOM Head of Office for Senegal.
While the migrants were visibly relieved to be back in Senegal, many were ashamed to go home empty-handed, having wasted the family savings, while others feared they would be unable to prevent peers from following in their footsteps.
“You can’t tell someone not to go to Europe, it is their personal decision,” said Gueye, recalling how his friends who made it to Italy would phone him to boast about their new lives. “Aspiring migrants are poorly informed of what lies ahead.”