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BY DREW HINSHAW, 14 June 2015, The Wall Street Journal
Allure of Wealth Drives Deadly Trek
KOTHIARY, Senegal—Less than a month after mourning a neighbor killed on the 3,000-mile migrant trail to Europe, Ibrahima Ba set off on the same treacherous road.
The 27-year-old was supposed to build a future in this stable corner of rural Africa, using money sent from his father in France to raise bulls and sell diesel fuel. But in March, as chaos in Libya eased a pathway to the Mediterranean, Mr. Ba gambled he could make a better life, selling the cattle to buy a ticket along the world’s deadliest migrant route and joining the largest global migration wave since World War II.
In April, Mr. Ba’s family mourned him, too: they believe he drowned alongside 700 migrants aboard a trawler that tipped into the sea, the worst in a series of tragedies that shocked Europe and triggered frantic diplomacy to rethink European immigration laws.
At least 1,840 have died on the crossing from Libya to Italy so far this year, following 3,200 known deaths last year, the International Organization for Migration says. “He didn’t lack for anything, he had everything he needed,” said Mr. Ba’s mother, Awa Diop. “But he wanted to have his own means.”
Mr. Ba represents a puzzling segment of the migrant population: Unlike those fleeing war, famine or economic desperation, this group is risking rising living standards to brave banditry, starvation and stormy seas to make a better life in Europe.
Officials here say five men from this village of several thousand—which in recent years has welcomed smartphones, laptops and satellite television—are known to have perished this year. More are missing, their fate unknown. Another man leaves every week, officials say.
Senegal is a stable West African democracy, and Kothiary has profited from the currents of globalization transforming rural Africa’s more prosperous areas. Flat screen TVs and, increasingly, cars—mostly purchased with money wired home by villagers working in Europe—have reshaped what was once a settlement of mud huts. The wealth has plugged this isolated landscape of peanut farms and baobab trees into the global economy and won respect for the men who sent it.
But it has also put European living standards on real-time display, and handed young farm hands the cash to buy a ticket out.
Leaving has become cheaper and easier thanks to turmoil in Libya, where revolution and civil war have created a power vacuum filled by militia gangs. Senegalese men, including the educated and ambitious among them, are betting their lives that they can cross that gantlet.
They leave behind a proud democracy whose steady economic growth has brought American-style fast food chains, cineplexes and shopping malls to this nation of 15 million, but hasn’t kept pace with the skyrocketing aspirations of the youthful population. Dusty and remote villages like Kothiary have become an unlikely ground zero for this exodus.
“Here, everybody is leaving,” said Mariama Ndiaye, a 25-year-old mother who held her infant daughter’s hand. “As soon as I raise the money, I’m going to France, to Italy, or to die.”
In the three months to March, 1,187 Senegalese crossed into Italy, outnumbering the refugees from even war-torn Syria and Somalia and totalitarian Eritrea, according to the Geneva-based Institute of Migration, though those countries surpassed Senegal in April.
The number of Senegalese jumped 123% from the first four months of last year, which also saw record emigration. West Africa houses several of the world’s faster-growing economies but is also sending some of the most migrants out.
Deaths along the route are also high. And yet aspiring Senegal migrants are undeterred. In Facebook chats, college students swap tips on how to avoid or appease police and bandits: “Just be polite,” was the advice a friend typed to Ibrahima Sidibé, a 28-year-old at the country’s top Cheikh Anta Diop University.
Students there, Mr. Sidibé included, have cashed out their scholarships to pay traffickers for a ride to Tripoli. Even their professors have traded in paychecks to journey north, joining policemen, civil servants and teachers, said Souleymane Jules Diop, the country’s minister for emigrants.
“People don’t go because they have nothing, they go because they want better and more,” said Mr. Diop. “It’s aspiration.”
An aide walked into his office to list the countries that had seen spiking numbers of Senegalese showing up without papers—places the minister would have to visit in the next two weeks: Cuba, Brazil, Venezuela, Turkey, Morocco, France and the U.S.
“What is happening now is not that different from the time of slavery,” Mr. Diop said. “We are losing the arms we need to build this country.”
For policy makers on the world’s poorest continent, the experience of Kothiary highlights a predicament. Senegal has followed almost every Western prescription on how to push Africa out of poverty: holding free and fair elections for four decades, liberalizing trade, building some of Africa’s better infrastructure.
And yet many of its best and brightest young people are leaving. Almost 75% of people here surveyed in a 2013 Oxford University study said they wanted to emigrate in the next five years. Last year, the ministry of emigration nearly tripled the number of passports it printed from the previous year.
Legal entry to most nations for a Senegalese citizen would require a visa—and, to obtain that, steady salaried work of a sort rare in Senegal.
The exodus is spurred by Senegal’s youthfulness. Half the population of Senegal, and of Africa, is under 19. These African youth are coming of age in a bleak job market. Just 11% of Senegalese adults were employed full time during a 2012 Gallup poll, a rate the poll showed was typical for the continent. For many young men who acquire extra cash, the best place they see to invest it is on a ticket out.
The result is a cycle that is making Senegal’s expanding economy hooked on remittances. Money sent home now accounts for 12% of Senegal’s economy—more than triple what it was in 1999. The suitcases stuffed with cash that fly into this country, along with other untracked transfers, might double that percentage, according to the emigration ministry. More than half the houses in Senegal have at least one family member abroad. In Kothiary, they are the homes with satellite TV.
“Everything you see, the pretty little mosques, the beautiful homes…it’s all financed by emigrants,” said Samba Gallo Ba, a government statistician responsible for Kothiary and its environs. “They’re the ones who can afford it. The state doesn’t have the means.”
When Ibrahima Ba was born here in 1988, thatched-roof homes squatted along an unpaved road. A train track laid during French colonialism had fallen into disrepair by his childhood. By the 1990s, the state had faded, too, constrained by debt to lay off civil servants in rural Senegal.
A different force washed into the vacuum: money sent from the villagers who left to work the day-labor curbs and hospitals of Europe. The money they sent home built multistoried villas, bought young people motorcycles and saw even gravel roads laid down.
Four cellphone towers climb over the settlement. Constant electricity and treated tap water, their bills paid for with remittances, flow into its homes. Outside, some children still chase tires together down the dusty roads. More and more, however, hang by themselves, thumbing soccer games on their new smartphones.
In the home of 72-year-old Amadou Kanté, four satellite TV dishes poke out from the walls of a two-story compound. There are TVs in several of his living rooms. Four Lenovo laptops are scattered on the furniture. Asked how many members of this family have a smartphone, his daughter Oumou Kanté replied, “everyone.”Young Men in Senegal Join Migrant Wave Despite Growing Prosperity at Home – WSJ
Mr. Kanté lavishes praise on the son—a nurse in France—who sends him home the €225, or about $250, each month that buys these gadgets. But he scolds the young men who think of going: “At every wedding, at every baptism, at every funeral I grab the microphone and I tell these young men not to go to Libya,” he said.
And yet this year, a younger son sneaked out, calling his father to say he was a few days from the Libyan border and needed $600 to get to Tripoli. The old man wired the cash.
“You must pray to the good Lord,” said a text message sent from a Libyan cellphone number a few weeks later, “because your son is crossing the open sea.” Mr. Kanté’s son made it. “There was an explosion of joy,” he recalled.
One of his neighbors had no such luck. Mahamadou Cissokho, a 37-year-old father of two, froze to death in February as a snowstorm off the coast of Italy blanketed his boat, his family said. He had left to earn money to build his son and daughter a house.
“He was talking of even building a castle,” his father, Kekouta Cissokho remembered. The next month, Mr. Ba woke his mother up at 4 a.m. When she saw the backpack over his shoulders, she wept: “I couldn’t keep him,” she said.
Mr. Ba was robbed somewhere in the Sahara in the weeks that followed, one of the ordeals recounted in brief phone calls with his father, a longtime resident in France. In April, a trafficker dialed the father to say Mr. Ba was en route.
But he never arrived. Mr. Ba’s departure coincided with the sinking of the jampacked trawler and the deaths of more than 700 aboard. One morning, his mother received a phone call from her husband. “He said ‘Do you believe in God? Do you keep the faith?’ ” she recalled. “And then he told me that Ibrahima was resting in the water.”
On a recent afternoon, a bus packed with young men sped down the highway past Kothiary. Inside, at least five men said they were headed to Libya, one of them studying a notebook of handwritten phrases he had titled “Englis.”
“To succeed in life, you have to take risks,” said Amadou Diow, an 18-year-old in a red baseball cap and jeans. “I don’t know what I will find there,” he added, “but I know I’m going to get something.”