In late 2020, Saikou took to the sea. For years, the sharp man in his late 20s had been trying to get a job in his home country, The Gambia, where he felt his talents could be used.
Eventually, he got fed up. He began negotiations with a friend, a middleman for smugglers, who told him to be on standby to leave. Then, he got a call saying the time had come. “We had to rush and buy some foodstuffs,” he recalled. He had no time to say goodbyes.
That night, about 200 people tried to fit into a small boat: 129 made it before the vessel was declared full. The final group included soldiers, fishermen and students; there was just one woman and many teenage boys, some as young as 13. Each paid between $500 and $600. The others left behind, many of them women, would wait until there was a chance to try again.
The Gambia is a small west African coastal nation, a sliver of land known as the "smiling coast" surrounded by Senegal. During the so-called European migrant crisis, in 2015-16, Gambians were one of the top nationalities reaching Europe across the central Mediterranean, from Libya to Italy.
Now, since that mostly overland route has become all but impossible as a result of hardening European migration policy, they are turning to the sea in ever greater numbers. At their closest points, the Canary Islands are just in excess of 100km from the coast of Africa. They are more than 1,600km from The Gambia.
While his smuggler said the journey should take a maximum of six days until they reached Spain, Saikou and the other 128 people stayed on the water for nine. After a week, they had run through the food and the 20l bottles of water on board. "The waves were big. The sea was very high and scary," said Saikou.
Closer to the Canary Islands, their fuel also ran out, but one man’s phone still had battery and found a signal, so they used it to call for a rescue.
Critics say this spending is increasing the capacity of African governments to abuse would-be migrants within their borders
Last year, about 1,200 people died or went missing attempting the crossing, according to the UN’s International Organisation for Migration, although it has called these “cautious estimates”. A Spanish NGO, Caminando Fronteras, last month put the figure at almost quadruple that. “Everybody knows there’s a chance you can die . . . but I’ll say the situation back home will force you, you’re desperate, at the end you don’t care, you don’t fear death, at the end you don’t mind,” Saikou said. At least 42,000 people successfully reached the Canaries between 2020 and 2021.
The EU has taken note. During a conference in Senegalese capital Dakar earlier this month, EU commissioner Ylva Johansson offered to deploy Frontex to Senegal – the first time the EU's border agency would be operating at such a distance from Europe's borders. Agents could work with local forces "to fight the smugglers", she said; an agreement could be finalised by this summer.
Saikou, who asked to go by a pseudonym, said boat trips from The Gambia are organised by a collection of fishermen and middlemen who are simply responding to demand. The only guaranteed way to stop people taking these journeys would be by making legal routes available, he said. “Everybody’s going to prefer a legal way. You go through hell.”
In Gambian newspaper The Point last year, journalist Fabakary B Ceesay wrote that linking migration to criminal networks and traffickers “in this part of Africa is a fairytale, and yet it [has] formed the basis of EU migration policy with far-reaching penalties”. Painting this as a fight against networks of smugglers rather than “poor, desperate migrants” has allowed European authorities “to see migration from a security and criminal viewpoint rather than [as a] humanitarian and economic problem”.
With Frontex patrolling off the west African coast, "people will still find a way", Saikou argued, but the danger they are in may increase. He recalled when, off the coast of Mauritania, his boat sailed close to fishing trawlers, and the man steering became worried the trawlers were actually coast guard vessels so directed the boat into international waters. "That made it more dangerous because in the high sea you see nothing, only at night the stars, the water; if anything happened no one could save you," Saikou said.
The European Commission will spend €4.35 billion of its 2021-27 foreign aid budget on African migration issues, according to pan-European alliance of NGOs the European Council on Refugees and Exiles – a sum of money that does not include other funds it can draw on in this regard. Critics say that rather than addressing the root causes of migration, this spending is increasing the capacity of African governments to abuse would-be migrants within their borders.
“As I’m speaking to you you will have people who are preparing to come, you will have people preparing to take the risk,” Saikou told me on the phone from Spain, where he now works on a farm six days a week. “Mostly it’s [because of] the lack of opportunity. In Spain, there is a difference, here at least when you work they are paying you, it can earn you a decent living – maybe not the life you want but you have healthcare, proper food, a place to sleep and if you convert [the euro] to your rates in Africa you get more, you [can] send money to your family back home.”