|Making money in Senegal off human cargo|
By Meg Bortin
May 30, 2006
MBOUR, Senegal People along this stretch of coast south of Dakar traditionally enjoyed warm waters, a mild climate and an abundance of fruit and fish.But then, says Babacar Diop, who is unemployed at 42, "Foreigners emptied the seas." Industrial-sized trawlers from France, Japan, China, and Korea came in such numbers that catches of tuna and shark grew rare, and local fishermen suffered. "The Japanese took all the big fish," said Moustafa Elhadj Sow, 26, who works as a boat painter in this hardscrabble fishing town of 300,000. "Now all that's left is herring." Fewer fish not only meant less money for the fishermen of Mbour. Prices went up for fish, a staple of the Senegalese diet, increasing the hardships on the impoverished population. Now, however, some residents of Mbour and other towns along the coast have found a new source of income: helping Senegalese and other West Africans head for the Canary Islands, from where they hope to reach mainland Europe and find jobs and wealth More than 8,000 clandestine migrants have reached the Canaries this year, many of them aboard canoe- shaped Senegalese fishing boats, known as pirogues, and many with the help of fishermen, according to Antonio Mazzitelli, regional representative for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. "Fishermen have discovered trafficking in migrants as a new and more lucrative job," said Mazzitelli. "The Senegalese have all interest in stopping it in terms of their fishing industry. If the situation continues, there will not be enough boats for fishing. The price of fish will go up and people will have a hard time feeding themselves." But it is far from certain that the Senegalese authorities will be able to stop a phenomenon that has captured the imagination of desperate young men willing to risk their lives for what local papers are describing as "the dream of El Dorado" in Europe. In the past two weeks, Senegal's government has stepped up sea surveillance to stem the flow of migrants. As of Monday, 642 Senegalese intercepted at sea were waiting in Mauritania to be sent home, officials said. Another 105 picked up by a Senegalese trawler were brought back to Dakar, where they were being held by the police. But media reports about the fate of migrants who are caught - 116 were given two-year suspended jail sentences in Dakar, the Senegalese capital, on Friday - have failed to deter others from leaving. In fact, the publicity appears to be fueling the trend. And with so many leaving, there is money to be made. One local newspaper, Sud Quotidien, said the transport of migrants had become "a veritable industry" that was making people rich. First, there is the fee paid by migrants: generally 500,000 CFA francs, or about $900, a huge sum in a country where few make as much as the official minimum wage of 45,000 CFA francs a month. Then there are the pirogues, which the migrants destroy upon reaching the Canaries to get rid of evidence of their origin and thus lessen the chances of being sent home. Because the boats that leave never come back, new ones have to be built. That means timber sales and work for carpenters. Then the boats need outboard motors, Global Positioning Systems, supplies of water and food, and fuel. Many are asking who is profiting from the trade, but although there is much talk of "mafia" involvement, nothing has been proved. "People are leaving with GPS equipment and satellite phones," said Vijaya Souri of the International Organization for Migration in Dakar. "It's more professional. As the means increase, chances are that behind it is organized crime." Local papers say that "recruiting officers" in Mbour and other coastal towns - Joal to the south and Rufisque to the north - are signing up youths with promises of a better life. "The phenomenon of clandestine immigration, especially among fisherman, seems linked to a question of survival," said a report in Le Quotidien. At least one boat of migrants even left from the fishing village at Saly, a popular resort just up the coast, it said. With neatly tended beaches where European sunbathers loll beneath the palms, Saly seems a world away from Mbour. So much so that, in one scam talked about here, unscrupulous organizers set out with a boatload of Guineans, motored around the high seas for a few days, then dropped the passengers at Saly, telling them it was the Canaries. For a short while at least, the Guineans were duped by the presence of so many Europeans at the resort. According to Mazzitelli, of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the phenomenon of clandestine migration to the Canaries, which has surged this spring, is linked to the sheer profitability of trafficking in humans. "When we analyze crime, smuggling of migrants is the most effective and profitable activity because there is no risk," he said. "You get the money up front. "If the boat capsizes, the organizer has already been paid, while for other forms of crime, the goods have to arrive at the destination." Previously, he said, larger boats were ferrying West Africans clandestinely, leaving from Guinea or Sierra Leone and picking up migrants along the way. There were reports that Nigerians and Ghanaians were involved in an organized network. But now, he added, the phenomenon is operating on a smaller scale, with considerable incentive for the individuals involved. Here in Mbour, local people are uneasy talking about clandestine migration, although they readily acknowledge that it exists. "Immigration, prostitution, all these problems are linked to the social crisis in our country," said Diop, who earns a little money showing out-of-towners around Mbour's colorful fish market. "There's not enough work," he said. "Many young people don't have work." For Saliou Dieng, 53, who runs a souvenir shop in Mbour, not just unemployment but also modern technology is to blame for the exodus of Senegalese. "We get television from Europe, and now mobile phones and the Internet," he said. "We can see how they live. We want to be like them." Europeans offer more help Several European countries pledged Monday to send planes and patrol boats to help stem the flood of Africans reaching Spain's Canary Islands, The Associated Press reported from Madrid. The agreement Monday followed an announcement of aid last week from the European Commission in Brussels. More meetings are planned to decide which countries will send what and who will pay for it, the Spanish Interior Ministry said. The plan requires at least five patrol boats, five helicopters and a surveillance aircraft, Deputy Interior Minister Antonio Camacho said at a meeting of European Union representatives. This would augment Spain's own force of planes and vessels. The countries that have agreed in principle to help Spain are France, Britain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Finland. The planes and vessels will monitor waters off the key departure points for Africans making the long and dangerous trip to the Canary Islands, such as Mauritania, Senegal and Cape Verde. About 400 more migrants arrived at the islands by boat over the weekend. The authorities have intercepted more than 8,000 migrants since January.
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