Senegalese Migration: Between Local Motives and International Factors


Aly Tandian asks why and how Senegalese embark on long and winding journeys through corrupt officials, barbed wire and deadly seas to reach Europe, untangling a complex web of social, economic and political dynamics at play.

Teaser Image Caption
West African migration routes to Europe. Source: The Economist/ ICMPD, 2017

In Senegal, migration is one of the few topics of conversation of interest to everyone, regardless of age, gender, ethnic group or profession. Travelling, for the majority of Senegalese, is not simply about getting a stable job or making one’s fortune; it is also a path to social prestige and status. Senegalese languages are full of proverbs that highlight the value of travel. “If you have a son, let him go. One day he will come back, either with money or with knowledge or with both.” “He who does not travel will never know where it is better to live.” These proverbs shape social representations across the collective consciousness of Senegalese people and endorse their desires to travel.

Senegal’s migration history is deeply rooted and ever evolving. The current migrants are part of a continuous mobility, travelling between places time and again throughout their lives. Now new destinations are taking shape in response to restrictive migration policies in Europe.

Local Reasons to Migrate

In the 1980s and 1990s, structural adjustment programmes led to rising unemployment caused by the collapse of previously state-owned industries, loss of purchasing power, and stagnating salaries.[i] Many of those still working in Senegal joined the ranks of the “working poor”, their salaries barely able to meet the needs of their families. As a result, many decided to migrate. Research carried out in Louga, in northern Senegal, tells us that certain professional categories previously spared from retrenchment, such as teachers and state employees, now also choose to migrate in order to improve their incomes. The prospect of low incomes is even mentioned by university graduates. A good education no longer guarantees a stable job with an income high enough to support a decent life.

The impoverished situation of locals is aggravated by the relative wealth of returning migrants. Quite often, the influence of peers and their stories of the charms of migration play an important role in the decision to leave.

Family pressure is another important factor. “My sister always told me to do everything to join her in Spain. And all our discussions on Facebook were about this. I made it clear that my next project was not the trip but rather to get married. But she told me that I needed to be financially independent before marriage. For her, migration was the only door that was open,” recalls Astou, a returning migrant.

Fallou, another returning migrant, experienced similar pressures in his family: “My mother kept pushing me to migrate, but she told me so only indirectly. To my brothers and me, she would mention the children of her friends who were abroad and who did a lot of things for their parents. As the eldest in the family, I came to understand that she was addressing me.”

Although Astou was able to travel by regular means with a visa, Fallou ended up in Italy after crossing Mali, Niger and Libya. The fare for this journey by road varies between CFA franc 300,000 and 500,000 (450–750 Euros), plus the money paid at checkpoints, pushing the cost to up to CFA franc 800,000 (about 1,200 Euros). At check-points along these routes, migrants are asked to pay bribes to avoid assault, imprisonment or even death. All sorts of “pieces of identification” are requested from travelers to relieve them of their money.

Tickets are paid for in Senegal to avoid any quarrels en route. Travel times are not fixed. The companies set departures according to when they think that their buses will face little risk of being stopped by security agents. Major departure points include the capital Dakar and Tambacounda in the southeast. Collection points and routes are well established. A travel agency manager elaborates: “The bus leaving Dakar brings passengers to Bamako [in Mali]. From there, another takes those who want to continue to other countries and so forth. The agencies only manage the transport. The passengers themselves have to take care of the rest.”

Impact of European Migration Policies

European migration policies have made their mark. In 2006, Spain became one of the first European countries to enter into bilateral cooperation with Senegal on maritime border control. The Spanish Guardia Civil, together with agents of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), patrolled Senegalese waters to stop maritime migration from Senegal to the Canary Islands. These measures massively reduced departures by boat, from 901 (with over 35,000 passengers) in 2006 to 101 (with just over 4,000 passengers) in the first half of 2007.[ii] This maritime border control, combined with repatriation policies in Spain and later also Italy, first pushed departure sites further south along the Senegalese coast and later dissuaded many migrants from embarking on the wooden “pirogues” (artisanal fishing boats) to make their way to Europe.

But it did not stop Senegalese youths from setting their sights on Europe. New routes to the Mediterranean crossing emerged via Mali, Niger and Libya. The EU pushed the government of Niger to pass Law 2015–36, which addresses irregular migration and human smuggling. As an interlocutor in Niamey points out, “Currently, with the application of Law 2015–36, it has become difficult for West Africans to go beyond Agadez [city in central Niger, at the edge of the Sahara Desert]. They are immediately seen as migrants who wish to go to Libya. We have the impression that ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] stops in Agadez. There is supposed to be free movement in the ECOWAS region, but on the ground, people are doing something else. They are looking to make money from migrants.”

Europe’s increased restrictions have also led to the emergence of new destinations. More and more Senegalese have decided on countries that share neither history nor geographic proximity with Senegal, including Cape Verde, Equatorial Guinea and Brazil. The 2015 African Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea and the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil created heightened attraction in recent years. Cape Verde, geographically very close to Senegal, has enjoyed steady economic growth since 2000 and has a growing tourism sector, making it an attractive destination for migrants from the West African mainland.[iii]

Latin America is much farther away, but Senegalese migrants state that the trip to the Americas is cheaper and now safer than the journey through North Africa. West African migrants first arrived in Brazil and Argentina almost twenty years ago, most of them coming from rural areas and between 20 and 30 years of age. The Senegalese were the first migrant group to ask for their status to be regularised in Brazil and, in 2009, around 800 received temporary residence permits.[iv] In Senegal, the trade in fake Brazilian visas is flourishing.[v] Those who do not make the journey to Europe, the Americas or another

African country often get stuck in the cities of Dakar and Saint-Louis in northern Senegal. They involve themselves in the informal sector alongside other young people who left the rural areas because of the lack of opportunities. They often become street vendors or make crafts from recycled material. The social pressure is too strong for failed voyagers to go home in shame. Their new activities are mobilising the necessary financial resources to resume their journey. Europe remains the destination of their dreams.

Translated from French.


[i] Cf. Demba Moussa Dembele, “Debt and destruction in Senegal: A study of twenty years of IMF and World Bank policies”, London: World Development Movement, November 2003. Available at:

[ii] Lorenzo Gabrielli, “Flux et contre-flux entre l’Espagne et le Sénégal. L’externalisation du contrôle des dynamiques migratoires vers l’Afrique de l’Ouest” (“Flows and counter-flows between Spain and Senegal. Outsourcing the control of migratory dynamics towards West Africa”), REVUE Asylon(s), No. 3, March 2008. Available at:

[iii] Philipp Jung, “Migration, Remittances and Development: A case study of Senegalese labour migrants on the island Boa Vista, Cape Verde”, Cadernos de Estudos Africanos 29: 2015. Available at:, DOI 10.4000/cea.1800.

[iv] Régis Minvielle, “L’Amérique du sud ou l’Emergence d’un nouveau théâtre des migrations africaines” (“South America: The emergence of a new theatre of African migration”), Afrique et Développement, XL(1), 2015. pp.19–39, CODESRIA.

[v] Pedro Noel and Laura Dixon, “Senegal: The Point of Departure”, Journalists for Transparency, n.d. Available at: