How young Senegalese are making desperate journeys to Spain’s Canary Islands

Several images shared in WhatsApp group in Senegal over the past few months show large numbers of young people leaving Senegal to make a dangerous attempt to reach the Canary Islands by pirogue (Screengrab of videos sent to the France 24 Observers team).
Several images shared in WhatsApp group in Senegal over the past few months show large numbers of young people leaving Senegal to make a dangerous attempt to reach the Canary Islands by pirogue (Screengrab of videos sent to the France 24 Observers team).

Increasing numbers of Africans are attempting to reach Europe by making a dangerous journey by sea to Spain’s Canary Islands, a new wave for a migration route that tens of thousands of people took in the early 2000s. In recent months, numerous groups have set off from coastal towns and cities in Senegal to make the treacherous crossing in traditional long fishing boats called pirogues. Our Observer says that most of the travelers are fisherman, who are suffering the economic impact of a depleted stock, and young people facing unemployment and economic uncertainty caused by the crisis linked to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Between 2006 and 2008, during a period nicknamed the “Cayucos crisis”, nearly 40,000 people arrived by fishing boat on the shores of the Spanish archipelago, the Canary Islands. During the first year of this crisis alone, more than 31,000 people entered the Canaries in this way. This emotional period left a strong impression on both Spain and Senegal, the country of origin for many of these migrants. 

Some of the people who attempted the journey were from Thiaroye-sur-mer, a town not far from Dakar. Unfortunately, numerous sons of the town were lost at sea. Others survived the crossing to the Canaries, only to be sent right back to Senegal. In 2007, locals set up a group called Ajrap, an acronym for the Association of Young Returnees (l’Association des jeunes rapatriés), to raise awareness about the dangers of illegal migration. 

"It’s the fisherman from around here who are leaving; there are no more fish”

In the past few weeks, increasing numbers of young people have been attempting the journey, their desperation highlighted by the popular slogan "Barça ou Barsakh" ("Barcelona or death"). Between mid-September and mid-October, the Senegalese national gendarmerie intercepted more than 400 people making the crossing. 

Tweet (in French) by the Senegalese army press division, DIRPA: “FRONTEX operation. Last night, the Senegalese Navy intercepted two pirogues in the waters off of Mbour, carrying a total of 183 people attempting to illegally migrate to Spain. Passengers disembarked at the base at 3pm and were turned over to the police and gendarmerie for questioning.  

These arrests and the videos showing young men aboard traditional pirogues bound for the Canary Islands that have been circulating on WhatsApp make Ajrap President Moustapha Diouf’s heart sink. 

On October 21, 580 migrants were rescued south of Grand Canary Island, bringing the total number of people reaching the Canary Islands by boat that week alone to 2,600. That number-- from a single week-- is uncannily equivalent to the total number for the entire year of 2019, when 2,698 migrants were recorded as entering the Canaries in this way.

People from Mauritania and Morocco are also attempting this journey; indeed, the Senegalese don’t actually represent the majority of migrants arriving in the Canaries. Still, Diouf says the growing numbers of departures from Senegal are concerning. 


What is happening doesn’t surprise me. For years, I have been telling media outlets from all over the world that, it was just a matter of time before people started leaving on pirogues again because people are just exhausted by the situation here. They’ll do it even if it is more than 1,400 km from Dakar to the Canaries. This isn’t going to stop until there are opportunities for our young people here. 

The departures from Thiaroye-sur-mer have been ongoing over the years; they didn’t stop between 2006 and 2019. Many, filled with young people from all across Senegal, were bound for Morocco. What we are seeing now, in 2020, is that most of the people attempting this migration route to the Canaries are fishermen because there are just no more fish to catch. International commercial fishing vessels are operating off of our shores and pillaging our resources. People are poor. I think in the coming months, there will be more departures. And it will be worse because the seas will be less calm [Editor’s note: because of poor weather conditions.]


The Google map shows the distance as the crow flies between Dakar and Grand Canary Island.  

Over the past few months, people seeking to migrate have been taking advantage of the relatively calmer seas at this time of year. 

In one of the videos that has been circulating on WhatsApp groups in Senegal, a man films the crowded pirogue that he is on. The shoreline in the distance and the red Spanish navy boat following them show that the boat has arrived in the Canaries. One young migrant calls on other young Senegalese to follow suit, showing them “how calm the sea is”.


These are screengrabs of a video circulating on WhatsApp, which the FRANCE 24 Observers team has chosen not to publish in order to protect the identities of those shown on camera. Several sources say that this group left Mbour some time in September or October. One explains that they have almost reached Europe. “Look at the mountains of Spain and the Spanish Navy. Look how calm the sea is. Come and find peace, all you young Senegalese. Out of the whole journey, there is just one dangerous stretch of 50 km."

"You can tell young people to stay, but they will respond, ‘how are we supposed to survive?’”

Diouf’s theory that a shortage in fish has led to increasing numbers of people setting sail for the Canaries is echoed by Mor Mbengue, who runs several organisations representing Senegal’s small-scale fishermen and also runs an organisation in the town of Kayar that helps young people who have returned to Senegal from Spain:


There were more than 100 young people who left Kayar in less than two months. Some were intercepted by the police but they will definitely leave again. We’ve even seen the captains of pirogues make the journey. It’s hard to turn your back on the sea and it was always considered shameful to do so. But today, we have the sea without fish. You can tell young people to stay, but they will respond, ‘How are we supposed to survive?’

The “pillage of the ocean by foreign ships” is the reason that so many young people are leaving for Europe, stated members of the National Union for Small-scale Fishing (l’Union régionale de la pêche artisanale, or URPAS) in the town of Saint Louis in an interview published in the Senegalese media on October 21,

Crisis in the fishing community 

The NGO Greenpeace published a report on October 9 condemning the opaque practice of awarding fishing licenses to foreign industrial fishing vessels, who are overfishing and depleting precious stocks off the coast of Senegal. 

Abdoulaye Ndiaye, a campaigner at Greenpeace Africa, said that they had also noticed increasing numbers of departures from fishing communities as the report circulated.

“The fishermen are no longer just transporting people to the Canaries,” Ndiaye said. “They have also become passengers in the pirogues leaving Senegal. Some sell their fishing equipment in order to go to the Canary Islands.” 

Ndiaye says that, within fishing communities who have seen decreasing returns during the latest fishing seasons, people are losing faith in the authorities. "Lots of fishermen went into debt and had to pool their money to pay for fuel,” he added.

“Furthermore, they are frustrated because they see more and more commercial fishing vessels in operation while, since 2012, the number of pirogues have been limited to protect fish stocks,” Ndiaye added.

Greenpeace is calling on the Senegalese government to publish a list of commercial fishing vehicles authorised to fish in Senegal’s exclusive economic zone. In the meantime, Ndiaye says that the controversy is growing and the videos of the young people journeying to the Canary Islands has added fuel to the fire. 

Screengrabs of a video that Moustapha Diouf sent to the FRANCE 24 Observers team on October 21 (the team has decided not to publish the full video to protect the identity of those featured.) Diouf says that this group of young people left Thiaroye-sur-mer around October 16. 

It is an accumulation of factors that push people to leave, but Ndiaye say the Covid-19 pandemic has definitely played a role. 

"Many sectors have suffered from the effects of the pandemic, not just the fishing industry. Informal employment, including small shops and vendors who sell things in front of their homes, have all slowed down,” said Ameth Ndiaye, the secretary general of the Association of Young Returnees in Thiaroye-sur-mer.

Ameth Ndiaye and the president of the association, Moustapha Diouf, preach that the solution is funding campaigns to raise awareness about the dangers of migration as well as providing job-skills training. In 2019, the association partnered with several organisations including Caritas to train a group of young people in sewing and food processing.

"They need to listen to us and support us,” Diouf said. 


These images show workshops organized by the Association of Young Returnees in Thiaroye-sur-mer in 2019. (Ameth Ndiaye sent these photos to our team).

"In Saint Louis, we’ve put in place a number of collaborative projects aimed at building economic and social inclusion for young people"

Petit Ndiaye is a blogger and runs the communication department for the city of Saint Louis, Senegal. He says he wants to stay positive. Even though there have been increasing number of departures, he says he has seen some projects that he believes help address the root causes of this issue:


I am working with a group created by the mayor of Saint Louis bringing together young people to combat Covid-19. We visit different neighborhoods to raise awareness about the disease and how to prevent it. We have also taken the opportunity to organise discussions around the dangers of irregular migration. 

We need to talk about it with the young men who leave but also with their families and their communities because the social pressure is a huge factor. In Saint Louis, we’ve put in place a number of collaborative projects aimed at building economic and social inclusion for young people.

The city is working to help fishermen transition to other sectors including car mechanics, commerce and even agriculture. There are also projects in place for women and recent graduates. These solutions are absolutely essential. 

The group of young people in Saint Louis are working with the mayor to raise awareness about how to combat the spread of Covid-19. They also speak to locals about the dangers of irregular migration. Petit Ndiaye sent these photos to the France 24 Observers team. 


In response to the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, Senegalese President Macky Sall launched a €22 billion economic stimulus plan. This “economic attack plan” is supposed to include a series of reforms in key sectors including agriculture, tourism and health.


On October 1, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Amadou Ba spoke to a group of European Union ambassadors. He said that Senegal hopes that paths to legal migration will be encouraged, while at the same time working to fight irregular migration. 


Article by Maëva Poulet.