31 October 2006

Senegal: "Mankind is Like This - One Wants to Get Ahead"

Dakar — He tried two times to get to Spain's Canary Islands in a fishing boat - and failed. But Mansour, a soft-spoken 42-year-old father of two, has not yet relinquished his ambition to emigrate to Europe.

Like tens of thousands of illegal migrants in Senegal, Mansour stepped aboard a wooden fishing boat in April after he was offered free passage because of his navigating skills. He brought a sea map he had found on the Internet, and promised to steer the boat to the Canaries with a global positioning system (GPS).

Mansour still has the map he printed out in a cybercafe. And he doesn't hesitate to show the amulets a marabout made for him to guarantee safe passage.

Fetching three leather waistbands from a cupboard towering over the edge of his bed, he says, "You need protection, of course, and this is what I wore on the trip."

Maiden voyage

Mansour, who asked that only his first name be used, has long nurtured dreams of working abroad. As a young man, he had applied for a visa at the embassies of Germany and Portugal. When his applications were rejected, he almost succeeded in getting listed as a member of a football team that was about to fly to Europe.

This time around, however, the opportunity to travel came unexpectedly and coincidentally, through a long-time friend with connections in the naval business. Mansour had heard about Senegalese fishermen leaving en masse; he had even seen the images of hopeful migrants washing ashore on the Canary Islands.

"It was a new phenomenon," he says. "All of a sudden, everybody was talking about it. The owners of the boats were making a lot of money. They could earn at least CFA 10 million (US $18,000) per trip, so after the first fishermen had made it to Europe, those who were still here began recruiting passengers themselves."

Mansour didn't tell his family he was about to emigrate. He just said he was going to work for a few days in the fishing industry north of the capital, Dakar, before slipping off in the night to a not-so-faraway beach, which served as the point of departure.

Unfortunately for Mansour and his 80 fellow travelers, one of the boat's two engines broke down en route, and the captain decided to return.

Another try

Mansour is not unhappy in the cozily decorated one-room home that is part of a bustling family compound. Family photographs are pinned on the headboard of the bed that he shares with his wife and two young daughters. Yet, having been out of work for nearly four years, he constantly worries that he won't be able to offer his children a decent education.

"It's really hard to find a job here," he says. "Even if you have a job, you never know whether you'll be paid by the end of the month. I just want to make a living. I love my family. I know that Senegal is not the worst place in West Africa compared to other neighbouring countries. But mankind is like this: one wants to get ahead in life."

So, Mansour decided to give the Canaries another go. He sold his most valuable possession: a small plot of land he had been planning to build his own house on. With a little over CFA 5 million (US $ 9,000), he was able to buy tickets for himself, two brothers, and six half-brothers.

"This time, I told my wife about my plans, and gave her what was left of the money," Mansour says. "Then I asked my father for permission to leave. At first, he was against it. But after thinking about it for a while, he said, 'If you have made your decision, I must have faith in you'."

Yet again, he only made it halfway to the Canary Islands.

Five days into the 10-day journey, the bow's stem split and the fishing boat began to take on water. The youngest migrants on board insisted they continue, Mansour says. "But I explained to them that it was the hand of God. If he decides we can't go on, we have to obey."

Baling day and night, the 87 would-be migrants arrived exhausted on the Mauritanian shore. Mansour called his wife to inform her that he was still alive, gathered his brothers and half-brothers, and boarded a bus back to Dakar.

Enduring hope

The journey in itself is not as terrible as it seems, says Mansour. The passengers can wash behind an improvised bathing space made of plastic sheeting. The ticket includes food and water, and the traffickers usually make sure they have a spare engine, barrels of fuel, a GPS and gas cookers.

"Safety is not an issue," he says, hopeful as ever. "Besides, I am not afraid to die. I believe in God."

But a new obstacle looms. Under increasing pressure from European countries adamant to stop the uncontrolled flow of African migrants, the Senegalese government began patrolling its coastline in conjunction with the European border agency Frontex in August.

Dreamily tracing a connection between Europe and Senegal on his printed-out navigation map, Mansour says he is currently on "stand-by".

"It's gotten more difficult," he says. "Everybody is lying low, hoping that the patrols subside in two or three months. But if there is a fishing boat leaving tomorrow, I've got to be on board."

This is the third in a series of stories on illegal migration this week.

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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