1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

In Senegal, migration to Canary Islands tears families apart

Robert Adé in Mbour, Senegal | Philipp Sandner
October 7, 2023

Senegal's navy has intercepted thousands of would-be migrants hoping to reach Spain's Canary Islands over recent months. Economic hardship and an ongoing political crisis make life a challenge for those left behind.

Children play on fishing boats known as "pirogues" on a beach in Dakar
Thousands of migrants have left Senegal in packed boats like these in recent monthsImage: Zane Irwin/AP Photo/picture alliance

The departure of her 19-year-old son for Spain took Aminata Boye by surprise. "I was not informed when he left," Boye told DW in Senegal's coastal city of Mbour. "When I asked about him, they told me that he had taken to the sea."

For the last three months, Boye hasn't heard one word from her son. "His phone rang, but he didn't answer," she said.

Now, the young man is among those who have been reported missing somewhere around Spain's Canary Islands.

"I lost my child at sea," said Boye, desperate. She isn't alone: many women in Mbour have a similar story to tell. 

For Codou Boye, however, the situation is different, though no less difficult. Her husband is stuck in Spain, she told DW, waiting for paperwork to be settled. At least he regularly transfers some money back home.

 A small boat with migrants arrives at La Restinga on the Canary island of El Hierro, Spain
Those who reach Spain's Canary Islands already have a perilous journey behind themImage: Europa Press/AP/picture alliance

"We struggle, sometimes we don't manage to meet our children's needs," she said. "Life is difficult here, but there's no point in going off to beg elsewhere. We don't know what will happen to him or how long he will stay there."

How many have migrated to Spain?

Many migrants have set off from Senegal in recent months, but specific figures are hard to come by. The country's navy has stepped up its patrols along the coast and says it has intercepted several thousand illegal migrants since July. Asked by DW for exact figures, government officials said they are known but "confidential."

However, those who survive the perilous journey in packed boats to the Canary Islands are once again counted. As of October 1, the UNHCR had registered about 15,406 arrivals in 2023 alone. From Senegal, migrants travel between 1,500 and 2,100 kilometers (up to 1,300 miles) to the Canary Islands, which, as part of Spain, are the gateway to Europe.

For German anthropologist Markus Rudolf, the recent increase isn't surprising. He said it can be attributed to a resurgence of migration after the COVID-19 pandemic. The systematic closing of other migratory routes has also added to the problem, said Rudolf, an affiliated senior researcher at Addis Ababa University.

'Domestic situation is hopeless'

Senegal's internal political crisis has further exacerbated the situation. In recent months, court action against the popular jailed opposition figure Ousmane Sonko has repeatedly stirred protest, leaving at least 16 people dead. Before his imprisonment, Sonko was considered a promising candidate in next year's presidential election.

"The domestic situation is hopeless," said Rudolf. "The protests have led to even greater resignation."

Fishers unloading boats at Mbour Fish Market in Senegal
Many people in Senegal make their living from fishing, but overfishing has made that far from lucrativeImage: robertharding/picture alliance

This comes amid ongoing economic hardship, with many Senegalese struggling to make ends meet. Rudolf said that has made remittances from family members in Europe all the more important.

Other destinations have also been spoken about on social media as being attractive for migrants, he added. Nicaragua, for example, is sometimes seen as an easy way to get to the United States, but in reality, this has repeatedly turned out to be a misconception.

"Why people should first come to the Canary Islands and then, without valid papers, try to continue to America is beyond me," said Rudolf.

Few alternatives to migration

Nevertheless, some groups in Senegal are trying to persuade people to stay. Among them is the National Association of Migrant Partners (ANPM), which is trying to raise awareness about the problems that those who leave will likely cause for those left behind.

In Mbour, the ANPM also tries to help the women who are mourning their loved ones while simultaneously coping with a lack of income previously provided by their departed family members.

The government recently set up yet another program to stop migration, but ANPM chair Cheikh Diop doesn't believe change is around the corner.

"This repressive approach of curbing migration does not work. Alternatives must be found for the young people. As long as that doesn't happen, it's a futile effort," he said.

This article was originally written in German.