“If today, as we speak, I see a boat going, I would be among the volunteers, let alone tomorrow,” said Malick Sall, a young electrician in his mid-twenties. “If most of us are trying to leave this country, it’s because we have no opportunities here,” he said, blaming the “government for not helping the youth at all.” The sentiments of this young man were featured in a BBC online article dated November 6th, 2006 along with numerous other stories concerning the increasing number of casualties and crack-downs on illegal immigrants heading for the Canary Islands from Senegal and other West African countries. Who in their ‘right’ mind would cross the Atlantic Ocean in a tiny fishing boat? Most likely someone who has virtually nothing to lose except his or her life.

According to Samori Sy, a native of Senegal and a current junior at the University of Maryland, illegal immigration has been a common practice in Senegal for many years. However, in recent times, the situation has escalated beyond proportions. “I am not sure about other African countries, but in Senegal’s case it is due to many factors linked to the economy of the country and the current government.” Although there is a high level of literacy amongst the country’s youth, the number of available jobs upon graduation is nothing to write home about. Many high school and college graduates therefore resort to small jobs like selling food, clothes and art work.” This seemed to be a plausible solution until the government banned people from selling their wares in certain parts of major cities like Dakar. “One of the reasons given for this is that mass clean-up exercises are to be undertaken in those areas. Unfortunately, these youngsters have not been given other avenues for making a living. This situation is partly to blame for the increased immigrations to the Canary Islands — the closest area of entry into Europe from West Africa.”

Fish constitutes a staple part of the Senegalese diet and consequently, fishing is one of the most common occupations in Senegal. However, many of Senegal’s youth aspire to going abroad to earn their living as opposed to staying at home to fish. The reason is simple. The stock of fish in Senegal’s waters is running out due to the numerous fishing agreements the country has with European countries. “It’s important to realize that this situation leaves many Senegalese fishermen with no money. They don’t catch enough fish to feed their families, much more make a substantial living.” The saying goes that two heads are better than one. Since the government seems to be ineffective, the inhabitants are left to find their own solutions. “The young folks want to go abroad. Yet they don’t have enough money or time to acquire a visa and go through that whole process. Who do you think will take them? It’s the fishermen who take them to Spain. Because there are no jobs and the money made in this venture is more than the fishermen might ever make otherwise, they are willing to risk their lives along with others by crossing the ocean. That is the core of the problem.”

More than ten fishing vessels carrying immigrants from Senegal have been accosted by Spanish authorities over the course of a year. The boats usually arrive every week or every other week with the immigrants extremely exhausted and starving. Aside the physical pressures of the trip, they also have to deal with the emotional pain of having to throw a fellow immigrant overboard after the person’s death. To make matters worse, they are unjustly regarded as criminals. The immigrants are eventually deported back to Senegal and the circle of economic deprivation continues.

The Senegalese government and the European Union have been working on a number of arrangements including a guest worker scheme to curb the spate of illegal immigration and help boost the economies of African countries through foreign wages. Unfortunately, thousands of young Senegalese men and women will not live to see the implementation of these arrangements. Even more heart-wrenching is the abject poverty and emotional turmoil the families of these young people will be thrown in. For them, the loss is not only in the thousands of dollars used in securing passage for a loved one, but also the loss of someone who was once close to home.