The Senegalese fishermen trapped between hunger and exile

The Senegalese fishermen trapped between hunger and exile
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[This article was first published by Equal Times in April 2017 and has been updated.]

While the majority of African migration is circular, i.e. between African countries, many also dream of reaching Europe. To achieve this dream, these migrants risk their lives by squeezing onto unsafe and overcrowded boats. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 22,000 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean between 2000 and 2014.

Added to this were almost 9,000 more victims in the following two years alone, which were particularly deadly. In the space of six years, from 2015 to March 2020, 16,731 people lost their lives.

And yet, despite the danger, thousands continue to attempt the perilous journey each year. What drives them to do this?

War, climate change and poverty are often cited as reasons for this forced migration.

In Senegal, Equal Times went in search of fishermen, a group that frequently attempts such journeys, to find out what was at the root of their distress.

For Africa as a whole, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)estimated that there were 6.1 million fishermen in 2017 and 50 million people who depend on the sector. In West Africa alone, more than seven million people depend on fishing activity, including 600,000 in Senegal.

Following the droughts of the 1980s, Senegal’s agricultural sector was in crisis. Many people moved to the coast to take up fishing, which led to a considerable increase in the number of fishermen and canoes in Senegalese waters. At the same time, property speculation and the expansion of Dakar led to much of the farmland being expropriated, thus further exacerbating many households’ dependence on fishing.

The final blow for fishermen came, however, with the signing of fisheries agreements with the European Union and other countries, particularly in Asia, which placed great pressure on the sector and led to the depletion of stocks.

Once these agreements had been signed with different African states (such Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal), European boats began to venture into the countries’ waters in order to supply their respective markets, thus redeploying European fleets that were now at overcapacity in the North Atlantic.

In addition to European fishing boats active in Senegalese waters, 60 per cent of the fish caught and landed along the Senegalese coast is destined for Europe. The presence of these foreign actors on the market has caused fish prices to rise and has reduced the diversity of species available for Senegalese consumers. And yet fish is an essential foodstuff that guarantees the protein intake of a large number of West African inhabitants.

The stories told by these fishermen, migrants and returnees, possible future migrants and relatives of migrants, bear witness to an ongoing situation in which the action taken by Senegal and the European Union has only shifted the problem.


Night trip out to sea in the Senegalese Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), off Dakar.

Photo: Pierre Vanneste

With the depletion of the fishery reserves, fishermen are having to spend increasing amounts of time at sea. Night fishing increases the risks. Venturing ever further to find fish, the fishermen have to cross the paths of European and Asian factory boats fishing in their exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and accidents are commonplace. Numerous Lebous families (an ethnic group traditionally involved in fishing) have friends or relatives who died following a collision between their canoes and trawlers.


Lamine, a fisherman from Dakar, has tried to reach Europe three times since 2006.

Photo: Pierre Vanneste

The amount of fish landed at Senegalese ports fell from 95,000 to 45,000 tonnes between 1994 and 2005.

According to the FAO, most species are being overfished in this region. In the past, fishermen could choose which fish to catch but now they fish as much as they can of whatever they find. This is endangering several species, such as the sardinella.

“What exhausts me most is having to go out maybe three or four times and yet not catch anything. In 2006, I was going through a difficult time. There were really no more fish left in the sea. I was so tired and I had to feed my family. I left because I wanted to find money to send to my family. That is why we left for Spain,” recalls Lamine.


Djibril, a security guard in Dakar, has tried to get to Europe twice.

Photo: Pierre Vanneste

Using a route initially opened up by the fishermen, and driven by poverty, a lack of work and debt, many people board canoes in an attempt to reach the Spanish coast of the Canary Islands.

As Djibril puts it: “As you can see, I have a family to feed and if I had refused to migrate, I don’t know what they would have called me. So I told myself, well, you have to leave, you have to try to leave like all the others. But, in the end, it didn’t work out and I came back.”


Elas, a fisherman from Thiaroyes-sur-Mer, has tried to get to Europe just once.

Photo: Pierre Vanneste

Up until 2006, fishermen wanting to reach Europe would pay at least 800,000 FCFA (approximately US$1,217) to ensure a trip under good conditions (new engine, diesel, food, water, etc). As the numbers of people wanting to leave increased, however, the canoes very quickly became overloaded and the prices fell, to 600,000 and even 400,000 FCFA (approximately US$973 and US$648). Accidents became ever more commonplace.

Many, like Elas, were repatriated, or even sent to prison. On his return to Senegal, Elas received 10,000 FCFA (US$16) and a sandwich by way of “compensation”.

“I sold my equipment to get to Mauritania. There, I paid 450,000 FCFA (USD 730) to reach the Canary Islands. After eight days at sea we arrived, and I was detained for 45 days. The President of the Republic, Abdoulaye Wade, sent his Minister of the Interior to sign agreements and send us back home,” declares Elas.


Moustapha, a fisherman from Thiaroyes-sur-Mer, has also tried to get to Europe twice.

Photo: Pierre Vanneste

On their return, these fishermen have a sense of abandonment. The state has done nothing for most of these returnees. There is unequal access to mobility. And while millions have been invested in “combating illegal migration”, this money has gone more into securing borders than into providing anything on the ground, where nothing changes.

For Moustapha: “First of all, life is very hard here in Africa. The state should invest in training or financing projects. But it does nothing of the kind. It goes to Europe, signs fisheries agreements with the European Union or European countries, sells off our coasts for money. This is very dangerous...because here it is the sea that feeds our families.”


Mamadou, a fisherman from Yarakh, and father of migrant children.

Photo: Pierre Vanneste

In many villages and neighbourhoods around Senegal there is now a lack of young people. Mamadou Sy has eight sons. They all emigrated “illegally” in canoes, 10 years ago. Like many others, they left without saying a word to their family. “Between 2006 and 2009, you wouldn’t believe it, you could walk into any village and see only women and elderly. All the young people had gone.”

Some have now returned. Others have lost their lives. “This has destroyed the whole village,” concludes Mamadou. Such migration is unlikely to stop. Political solutions do not seem to offer better prospects for many Senegalese, who still prefer the route of exile.

This article has been translated from French.