Senegalese families mourning deaths of hundreds of young men trying to reach Europe

World

In a half-built home off the busy beaches of the fishing town Mbour, relatives and neighbours gather to grieve without a body to bury. 

A young woman walks in and greets each of us with a handshake and curtsy.

She turns to kneel at the feet of the man sitting in the centre room and suddenly, her posture collapses as she breaks into deep sobs. She was set to marry his youngest son, Mohamed.

Mohamed was one of at least 50 people who recently died attempting the dangerous Atlantic route from Senegal to the Canary Islands.

Their half-sunken boat was found 60 miles south of the Canary Island El Hierro on 29 April – none of their bodies were found in or around the wreckage.

Oumar's son Mohamed died trying to reach Europe
Image:
Oumar’s son Mohamed died trying to reach Europe

“It was announced that there were only nine survivors in the Spanish hospital. When the survivors became conscious and they were asked – we knew Mohamed had died,” says his father Oumar.

“I had decided to seal his marriage. That is why his fiancee was sobbing when she arrived – her hope was shattered.”

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Three of Mohamed’s older brothers are currently in Spain, struggling to live without residency permits. Oumar says two of them left from Senegal and one from Mauritania to the Canary Islands by boat over the last three years.

Oumar's son Mohamed died trying to reach Europe
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Mohamed had three brothers already in Spain

The Spanish non-profit organisation Caminando Fronteras (Walking Borders) says more than 6,600 migrants died on the Atlantic route last year as a record 55,618 migrants arrived in Spain by boat with most of them landing in the Canary Islands, according to Spain’s Interior Ministry.

Despite the risks, the route is gaining popularity as the land journey to the Mediterranean Sea through North Africa has become increasingly militarised, with Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania in bilateral agreements with the European Union (EU) to stop migration.

In January, 7,270 migrants arrived in the Canary Islands – around the same number of arrivals there were in the first six months of last year.

Caminando Fronteras describes the Atlantic route as the deadliest and busiest migrant passage in the world.

Oumar is pained by the loss, but not shocked that Mohamed left to join his brothers. Life in fishing towns across Senegal has become unbearable.

“When I was younger and deep-sea fishing, I didn’t face the problems we have now of industrial fishing boats and the big nets that they use.

“All of this has destroyed the sea. It is happening right now and here in our area and our sons are aware that there are no resources,” says Oumar.

“This is the reason our sons are taking boats and leaving.”

The fishing town Mbour, Senegal
Image:
The fishing town Mbour, Senegal

Illegal and unregulated fishing by large Chinese trawlers and Senegal’s long-standing EU fisheries partnership are at the heart of discontent around the depletion of fish stocks and the devastation of artisanal fishing communities.

Under the current agreement, the EU pays the Senegalese state €2.6m (£2.2m) a year to allow 45 European vessels from Spain and France to fish 10,000 tonnes of tuna and 1,750 tonnes of hake. That is the equivalent of 0.005 euros per tonne of fish.

“The issues with the fishing agreement, which started in the 1970s, is that almost all the areas that it applies to are exploited.

“These fishing agreements are not able to develop in a way to protect the fisheries – a renegotiation in a true way that can benefit these countries should be done,” says Dr Aliou Ba, senior ocean campaign manager for Greenpeace Africa.

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Senegal’s new president Bassirou Diomaye Faye has declared he will review fishing deals and licences signed with its partners that include the European Union to guarantee they are structured to benefit the fishing sector.

“This is a very good statement. There have been years of calls for the audit of the Senegalese industrial fleet. He also requested a renegotiation of this fishing agreement,” says Dr Ba.

“It can be a real, fair fishing agreement. This can be a precedent of African countries defending the interest of communities, of the people.”

But an alternate ecosystem of smugglers and young men eager to follow family and friends to Europe may have already been cemented.

A fisherman turned smuggler speaks to Sky News
Image:
A fisherman turned smuggler speaks to Sky News

On a beach an hour away from the government buildings of Dakar, a fisherman turned smuggler tells us around 200 people in the area died trying to get to the Canary Islands, but demand is higher than ever.

“In Senegal at this moment, we have no time to think too much because we have done so much thinking and don’t have solutions. The only thing we see is to go to Europe.”

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