The global Covid-19 pandemic has stranded a group of Senegalese truck and van drivers in the Western Sahara desert for the past two months, leaving them unable to cross the border between Morocco and Mauritania and continue their journey home to Senegal.

The Covid-19 pandemic has now spread to at least 230 countries, a majority of whom have taken the decision to shut their borders in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.

Morocco – which, on May 25, had 7,495 cases of Covid-19, shut its border with Mauritania back on March 18, a week after Mauritania made the same decision. The decision, however, trapped dozens of drivers at the border, including many Senegalese traders who were transporting goods from Morocco to Senegal via the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott.

Our team received numerous videos showing these traders waving signs and denouncing the lack of support from the Senegalese government.

According to numbers released by the Senegalese consulate in Casablanca, around 105 people are currently stranded in Western Sahara, a disputed territory that is claimed by both Morocco and the Polisario Front, a separatist group. Thirty-two people are stuck in Bir Gandouz, while 62 are in Dakhla, which is 80 kilometres from the Mauritanian border.

“We don’t have any more money. Our merchandise went rotten under the sun”

Mor Sall Drame says he has become a sort of informal spokesperson for a group of about 16 Senegalese truck and van drivers trapped at the border. His says his group was luckier than most because they eventually got assistance from the Moroccan authorities.
We are really exhausted. The Senegalese government isn’t doing anything for us. I live in Senegal but, every month, I do a trip up to Morocco. I sell dried fish and I leave with lots of goods, including traditional soap, essential oils and djellabas (....).

I arrived in Casablanca on March 3 and stayed there for a few days, just enough time to sell my wares and buy other goods to bring back to Senegal. When I left Casablanca on March 15, the borders weren’t yet closed.

To get to Guerguerat, which is the Western Sahara border crossing that I was aiming for, you first have to go through the town of Dakhla, where the police give you an authorisation to show at the border. We ended up losing three days in Dakhla, while we waited for the pass.

When we finally got to the border on March 19, they were already shut. A few Senegalese citizens were actually stuck in the No Man’s Land between Morocco and Mauritania. We held a protest so that the Senegalese authorities would intervene and escort our brothers back to Senegal.

But our group was stuck on the Moroccan side, so we didn’t get the opportunity for safe passage back to Senegal. Instead, we had to go back to Dakhla. We called the Senegalese Embassy and the Consulate for help but didn’t have any success.
"We slept in our vehicles"

The other traders and I stayed in a hostel at first but, after a week, we ran out of money. We started sleeping in our vehicles. It was a really difficult situation. That lasted two weeks. At that point, local officials in Dakhla got us hotel rooms and started providing us with food.

It wasn’t until then that the Senegalese Embassy sent a representative to take our names. They started providing housing to people who weren’t already being housed by the Moroccans. But they didn’t give the people they were housing any assistance in terms of food.

This van belongs to our Observer, Mor Sall Drame. Photo: Mor Sall Drame
There are more than 60 of us stuck here. The government abandoned us. We want to go home. We don’t have any money left. Our goods went rotten in the sun.

“They are being supported by the Senegalese government”

On May 19, the FRANCE 24 Observers spoke to Moïse Sarr, who works at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as the Secretary of State in charge of Senegalese nationals abroad. He said he was aware of the situation and denied accusations that his office had been unresponsive.
When we heard about the situation, we worked with the Consul general in Casablanca to identify those in need of assistance and to provide help. Since March 22, Moroccan authorities have taken responsibility for one group, while the Senegalese Consulate General in Casablanca has taken care of others.

The Senegalese government is taking care of their housing and food. They are each receiving a daily allowance of 1,800 CFA francs (equivalent to less than 3 euros).

We’ve also given them the option of being repatriated by plane, which is what we did on March 21 for Senegalese citizens in Casablanca. Since May 12, we’ve also been bringing Senegalese citizens home from France.

But they declined the offer because they said they had their cars and their wares with them, so they wanted to travel home by road. That’s not possible for the time being because, to get to Senegal, you have to cross Mauritania, which is a sovereign country that decided to close its borders.

However, we are taking care of their needs until we manage to reach an agreement with the Mauritanian authorities. 

A 19 million euro emergency fund to help the diaspora

Mor Sall Drame confirmed that his group had refused the offer to be repatriated. On May 19, he told our team that, over the past two months, he has only received 300 dirhams (27 euros) from the Senegalese authorities. However, on May 23, Drame said that the Consulate had transferred him 784 dirhams (73 euros) : "The Consulate promised to send us 80 euros. We just received this money. But it wasn’t the sum promised.”

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to Massamba Sarr, the Senegalese Consul General in Casablanca. He said that: “Senegalese citizens in Morocco who have signed up online, including those trapped at the border, will each receive 50,000 CFA francs (75 euros). Senegalese citizens who were coming from Europe and who were trapped in Morocco because their flights were cancelled will each get 350 euros in aide. We are currently conducting diplomatic negotiations with the Mauritanian authorities. As soon as our neighbors open up their borders, they will be able to go back to Senegal.”

Senegal has released emergency funds of 12.5 billion CFA francs (more than 19 million euros) to help those in the diaspora impacted by the pandemic, including 500 million CFA francs (760,000 euros) for Senegalese nationals living in Morocco who signed up on a dedicated online platform. Around 13,000 people will receive this aid.
Morocco is one of the main suppliers of goods to Senegal. According to French daily Le Monde, the two countries traded more than 86 million euros worth of goods in 2017.

Article by Hermann Boko