Monday, 18 January 2021

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Barcelona or the grave – the long way to Europe

1. Spanish coastguard intercepting Senegalese pirogue with migrants at Tenerife. Photo UNHCR A.Rodriguez

7 July 2014 - The recent surge in migrant arrivals in Italy has once again spurred the debate about the EU’s common responsibility, possible human rights offences by its border surveillance Frontex, and border fences with barbed wire and razor blades. Italy’s Mare Nostrum program is applauded by human rights organisations, but has received harsh criticism from domestic right wing populist parties who’d rather see the migrants paying the price for attempting to cross – be it with their lives.

But why do migrants keep risking their lives? One reason is quite simply that not all stories end in tragedy - some migrants are granted residence permits, be it after years of waiting, and eventually managing to send money back home. For many, life in Europe remains a struggle – but it still is a better life than the one they would have led at home.

UNRIC has interviewed Moussa Diouf, one of the countless young Senegalese who have embarqued the fishing boats called pirogues, and actually made it to Europe. He left Senegal one night a couple of years back, together with 83 other passengers, from Djokkoul near the coastal town of Rufisque. Unemployment was not a factor in Diouf´s decision to leave Senegal. He had a job and was active in politics, working for the presidential campaign of former President Abdoulaye Wade in 2000. “I had enough of the regime of the time. Everyone had high hopes after the presidential elections back in year 2000 as Abdoulay Wade, the opposition leader, got elected” But soon hopes gave way for bitter disappointment. ”Corruption was present everywhere and I was victim of a scam myself… there were so many problems. You swallow and swallow but one day you can’t take it anymore. Wade crushed the hopes of his electors”, says Moussa in an interview with UNRIC’s newsletter.

Life jacket UNCHR Phil BehanContrary to common belief, not all families want their children to leave for Europe. Mothers in Thiaroye Sur-Mer, one of the popular starting points for migrants, had organised themselves already in 2006 in order to fight the clandestine immigration, tired of living in fear of losing their sons to the sea.

But Moussa’s mother understood him. When he found out that a fisher boat, a so called pirogue, was about to head for Spain, he easily got in contact with a middle man who arranged the trip. Then he informed his family.  “I only said “Barca wala Barsakh”, an expression we use in Senegal.” It means Barcelona or the grave. All or nothing.

“My mother understood me and my desire to leave. I got her blessing, I paid 500€ for the trip and I left, together with my brother.”
The pirogue left Djokkoul at three a.m. Before the trip, some of the passengers had consulted a marabout, a spiritual and religious leader, for guidance. According to him, they had to bring along a pearl hen, and as long as its needs were satisfied before everyone else’s, and as long as it would be the first to step ashore, they would succeed the crossing.

Moussa had, according to instructions, purchased a fisherman’s outfit – rain clothes and boots. Underneath he wore his regular clothes, and that was all he brought along. According to the crew, food and drinks were to be found on board, and they kept their promise. The crew had brought a stock of rice, frozen fish, vegetables, tea, sugar and a portable gas cooker. . Water was stored in large canisters, and everyone took turns preparing the food. 
“We didn’t fish, as some do, and in a couple of days the fish we had brought along, had gone bad. But we still had vegetables and rice. No one thought of touching the pearl hen, we had sufficient amounts of food. The problems started when we ran out of water.” Someone on board had used water for personal hygiene, and during the last three days there was not drinking water left on board. Many of the passengers got dehydrated, and many started hallucinating. And no water also meant no food.

First they tried to make porridge with sea water, but it was impossible to eat. “We tried to sugar it so it wouldn't be so salty, but it didn’t help. We were desperate. But then me and my brother had an idea. We steamed the rice instead, sugared it, and rolled small rice balls. That’s how we survived.”
“On June 7th, we arrived at Tenerife. Our boat was surrounded by the Spanish Guardia Civil’s coast guard and also by journalists who had come out to take pictures and film us. I was caught on Euronews and my face was all over the place the whole day – that’s how everyone in Senegal found out I had left”, Moussa tells. “It’s better not to say anything to people when you leave, but rather come back with honour, having saved money and constructing a house or starting a business. I hadn’t really expected that people would find out through Euronews.”

The boat was towed to land, and everyone taken care of. The Guardia Civil had immediately thrown water bottles to everyone on board, and the Red Cross 2. Senegalese fishing boat Photo Flickr Goodwines 2.0 Generic CC BY-NC-ND 2.0was waiting for them on shore. But disembarkation was delayed: according to the marabout, the pearl hen had to be the first to touch the ground, so she was handed over first. “Unfortunately we arrived during the worst period of the bird flu hysteria. So as soon as they spotted the bird, no one was allowed off the boat. Half an hour later a lady appeared ina protective body suit, reached out a plastic bag where we placed the pearl hen, and left. Only then could the rest of us get off the boat”, says Moussa. “No one could stand on their feet after a week at sea.”

After that , they were transported to a detention center where they were held while their backgrounds and stories were checked for a decision regarding a possible residence permit. “There were many others who had arrived before us. The centre was good, we were lucky – we could spend time outside in the courtyard, those who wanted could play football, those who wanted could pray… we were treated well even though we were under surveillance. We stayed there for 40 days while our cases were examined. Those who are taken to military camps aren’t as lucky, there they live in refugee tents. We were aware of this.”

Moussa was lucky. He was one of those who could stay in Spain, and is today one of the thousands of migrants who que outside Western Union or Ria in order to send money home to his relatives. Thousands of young people hope to be as lucky as him. The global migration continues, but Europe is getting harder and harder to reach, and allegations of human rights violations by border surveillance and private surveillance companies are increasing .
“If I regret it? Of course not. The problems I left behind me are still present, despite the end of President Wade’s mandate, despite our new President Macky Sall. If laws and regulations were obeyed, youth would not leave the country. We must dare to challenge our leaders and governments, and demand to know how our money is being spent. Those who take the boats know they might die. You don’t do it for fun – you do it because you don’t have a choice. I’m happy with my life today – but it’s not the life I would have wanted.”

Read more stories of migrants from our newsletter here.

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