Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Trying to stay afloat without drowning: migrants reopen route to the Spanish Canary Islands

As COVID-19 measures close borders within Africa, migrants find new ways to stay mobile.

María Hernández Carretero Ida Marie Savio Vammen
7 December 2020, 8.00am
Arriving in Malaga Port in November 2020.
Jesus Merida/SOPA Images/Sipa USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

A WhatsApp voice message came in from Moustapha Diouf a little over a month ago. “It has started again,” he said, “the pirogues are heading to the Canary Islands. The route has picked up again.” Diouf is one of the spokesmen of AJRAP, a small association of migrant deportees in Thiaroye-sur-Mer, a fishing community on the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal. By this he meant that traditional pirogue fishing boats are once again filling up with West African migrants ready to brave the Atlantic Ocean to reach Europe. More than a thousand migrants reached the Spanish archipelago within few days. It’s a development that alarms and saddens Diouf. He knows from experience that such journeys can end up having lethal consequences for the migrants involved and create deep wounds of grief in local communities. But he is not surprised that people are leaving.

Since 2015, increasing activity on the so-called Western African Maritime Route has led to rumours that the route was about to open up again. And for years, Diouf has worried that the local youth would follow in his own footsteps and those of the more than 32,000 migrants who arrived in the Spanish Canary Islands in 2006. This is why AJRAP seeks to raise awareness of the dangers of irregular migration and to push officials and international NGOs to create alternative livelihood options for the youth. Diouf knows it is an almost impossible mission. Young men, like those of his generation, are ready to “dem ba dee” – go or die trying. “You have to understand that young people are tired of poverty and of the lack of fish and of job alternatives,” he said. “They can’t stay put anymore.”

Arrivals in Spain continue to climb

Nearly 20,000 migrants have arrived in the Canary Islands this year. More than 5,000 came in November alone, compared to 2,698 in all of 2019. The islands were not well prepared for the large inflow, and have struggled to accommodate the numerous arriving migrants, who come from the coastal states of Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, and The Gambia, as well as from other African countries like Algeria, Mali, Guinea-Conakry, and even South Sudan. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has reported that recruitment of potential migrants for the overseas journey to Europe is growing and that 545 boats have reached the islands so far this year.

Not all who leave complete the crossing. Some are intercepted in African waters by the European Border and Coast Guard agency, Frontex, while others get into difficulties at sea. Search and rescue operations are conducted in Senegalese and Spanish waters, but some boats do not get rescued in time. IOM estimates that there have been 41 shipwrecks on the route, but that the actual number might be higher. One of them occurred on 24 October. The Senegalese media reported that the engine of a pirogue carrying 200 migrants exploded, causing at least 140 people to drown hours after setting off from the coastal town of Mbour, a few hours south of Dakar. This year, 511 people are reported to have died attempting the journey – nearly twice as many as in 2019.

Reopening of an old route

Since the end of the 2000s, this route had largely been kept in check by increased European maritime operations and cooperation with African countries. As in 2005-2006, when Diouf made the journey, its resurgence lies in a number of interrelated circumstances: a fragile economy in which millions of people live from day to day, a fishing sector in crisis, a widespread sense of disenchantment with the government, the intensification of migration controls in North Africa, and instability in neighbouring countries.

This time around the COVID-19 pandemic is likely also serving as a catalyst. The Senegalese economy is projected to shrink this year with negative growth of -0.7%, a sharp fall from the steady 5% growth rate of the past six years. The tourism sector has come to an almost complete stop, while other sectors such as agriculture and fishing have also been affected by border closures. In the spring markets and schools were closed, circulation within the country was restricted, and a night-time curfew was imposed for several weeks. This imperilled the fragile livelihoods of the large segment of the population surviving on informal economic activities, who were left without a safety network the moment they could no longer pursue their day-to-day activities.

Fishermen who can no longer make a living from fishing are willing to repurpose their boats and navigational skills to serve migration.

The important fishing sector, which makes up 17% of Senegalese exports and employs 600,000 people, was hard hit as exports stalled. Fish markets remained only partly open and, with the ports closed, foreign fishing vessels could not land their catches. In early June, protests erupted throughout the country demanding an end to the restrictions, which were yet another blow to an already struggling sector.

Highly efficient, industrial fishing trawlers from countries like Spain, France, China, South Korea, and Japan have for years cast their nets in West African waters. Some of them have been accused of illegal, unreported, or unregulated fishing. This foreign activity, combined with illicit fishing practices locally, has led to the over-exploitation of Senegalese waters and left traditional fishermen with few fish to catch.

The fragility of the fishing sector is an important factor in the resurgence of the pirogue route, since boats and experienced navigators are essential in bringing migrants to Europe. As in 2006, the current crisis in the fishing sector has meant that fishermen who can no longer make a living from fishing are willing to repurpose their boats and navigational skills to serve migration. Those in charge of bringing boats to Spanish shores are typically described as ‘smugglers’ by European authorities and media, and they risk arrest and prosecution if they are caught. Yet the navigators are themselves migrants hoping to find a better livelihood abroad, and so they put their seafaring skills to use in exchange for free passage to Europe.

A direct connection to Europe

As in 2006, the pirogue route offers the promise of bypassing the harsh obstacles that prevent Sub-Saharan Africans from reaching Europe, such as dangerous desert journeys across the Sahara Desert followed by boat crossings over the Mediterranean Sea, or the tall barbed-wire fences surrounding Spain’s two enclaves in North Africa. According to the head of the IOM in Senegal, Bakary Doumbia, the route’s resurgence is connected to closures of land borders as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in the countries through which migrants usually travel. The pandemic aside, in recent years border controls have intensified not only in North Africa – the most obvious crossing point for migrants and asylum-seekers – but even farther south. In contrast to 2006, the dangers of the Atlantic route and what it takes to overcome the journey are already known to potential migrants and organisers – it just needed to be reactivated.

The Senegalese population is well aware of the dangers of clandestine migration and its impact on migrants, as well as their families and communities. These were extensively covered by Senegalese media following the events of 2005-2006. Since then, information and awareness campaigns sponsored by the EU and European governments also seek to convince potential West African migrants not to embark on these journeys. The IOM and a range of INGOs have even engaged local artists and theatre troupes to bring the border to life in fishing communities and rural areas through re-enactments of the brutality of contemporary regimes of border governance. Such spectacles, however, often receive mixed receptions since they do not offer any sustainable alternatives to migration. On the other hand, videos shared on WhatsApp reportedly showing migrants who have successfully reached the Canaries seem to spur renewed hope among disenchanted youth despite the route’s dangers.

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If those attempting the journey today are aware of the economic problems facing European countries affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, this does not seem to discourage them. The prospect of facing hardships and uncertainties in Europe did not discourage others who went before them: migrants reaching Europe through unauthorised channels are generally aware that getting papers might take years and that life and work during that period will be trying. Among those who arrived by pirogue in 2006, many stayed put during Spain’s economic crisis of 2008-2014, expecting that conditions would eventually improve. Like them, those emigrating now hope that being in Europe will pay off in the long run and offer them a way out of the situation of chronic livelihood uncertainty at home.

But for Diouf, there is only one way forward: “The youth have to see something concrete to stay for. They need jobs, training and projects. You have to understand, all people want is to work and have enough money to feed their families.”

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