Senegal's Repatriated Immigrants Fight for Their Rights

By Naomi Schwarz
Dakar, Senegal
17 October 2006

Senegal and Spain's government say thousands of would-be illegal immigrants have been repatriated in the past month, after trying to get to Europe by boat. After their forced return, many are now demanding help to get jobs in Senegal. Naomi Schwarz has this report from Dakar, with additional reporting by Julie Vandal in Casamance.


El Hadj Malick Ndiaye is one of the thousands of Senegalese who have been repatriated, after crossing to the Canary Islands illegally in small fishing boats in the hopes of reaching Spain.

He was brought back forcibly by plane, but still holds Spain in high esteem, chanting with friends about his experience.

Now back home in southern Senegal, he has been unable to find work, and feels worse off than before he left. But he does not blame the Spanish government for sending him away.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Spanish government, he says, adding, "muchas gracias", thank you in Spanish, for all they have done for us.

Instead, Ndiaye saves his anger for his own government.

They told us there would be work for us when we got back here, but they have forgotten us completely, Ndiaye says. There is no work, there is nothing for us.

Ndiaye is the spokesman for a new group called the Citizen's Committee of Senegalese Clandestines. The group consists of more than 900 Senegalese from the southern Casamance region who migrated illegally to Spain and have been repatriated.

Together with similar groups from other regions of Senegal, they hope to create a national organization to bring their complaints directly to the prime minister's office. With sufficient numbers, they hope their voices will finally be heard.

At 16-years old, Rama Thioye is the youngest member of the organization. She had to leave school when her parents could no longer afford to pay. She too made the dangerous crossing to the Canary Islands in the hopes of eventually earning money that she could send home to help her parents.

We want to work hard, she says. That is all we want.

The returned immigrants say they would have been happy to stay in Senegal. They say they are regular citizens; farmers, merchants, skilled tradesmen, and the like who have tried to earn a living in their chosen profession. Most have tried several different professions, only to continuously struggle.

The West and Central Africa representative for the Geneva-based Organization of International Migration, Armand Rousselot, agrees that illegal migration is a development problem, not a criminal one.

"I think it is important to address the root causes of irregular migration. The main origin of irregular migration is the economic differences between the north and the south, the lack of economic opportunity in the country of origin, such as Senegal.

Senegal's government has signed a cooperation agreement with Spain to try to better monitor the West African coast and curb illegal migration. Senegal's government has also pleaded with those who want to go to Europe to use legal channels. It says it is doing what it can to reduce unemployment, estimated by many economists as above 40 percent.