Source: OpenDemocracy

When we hear about irregular migration from Africa to Europe, migrants are frequently portrayed as victims of human traffickers who exploit vulnerable people on the move. Migrants have even been called ‘modern-day slaves’ in need of humanitarian protection. But is this an accurate assessment? Are irregular migrants today really enslaved, or are they simply trying to make their way through borders that have become progressively securitised?

In my work with repatriated clandestine migrants in Senegal, I find that people do not see themselves as victims, but rather as undertaking risky journeys – including paying facilitators – in order to obtain a better life. That migrants today face exploitation as they cross the Sahara and the Mediterranean is clear. But this is the result of increasingly restrictive migration controls, and not the presence of ‘modern-day slave traders’. Enslavement, which implies forced movement, is not how my research participants would characterise their travels. Instead, they describe their journeys as linked to a long and profound history of mobile labour migration to Europe. In what follows, I explore some of this history as a way to challenge the idea that migrants are duped or coerced into passage by what some call ‘slaver traders’.

Early histories of mobility, 1500–1900

Mobility has been a central feature of West African societies for centuries. In fact, pre-colonial Senegambia has been characterised as a “terminus for incoming populations and a point of departure for migrants on the move”. Up until the fifteenth century, trade, and the mobility that enabled it, was oriented inland towards the Sahara. With the onset of the global slave trade in the mid-fifteenth century, commercial routes shifted from the desert to the ocean as European commodities were exchanged for slaves captured in the West African hinterlands.

When the French abolished the maritime slave trade in 1848, they turned to groundnut exports as a profitable alternative. This too required a mobile and often coerced (corvée) labour force as people migrated to cultivate cash crops during the rainy season. At the same time, people regularly used relocation as a way to evade colonial administrators. Populations were known to disappear into the proverbial bush when taxes, military conscription, and labour quotas became too onerous to bear. 

Populations were known to disappear into the proverbial bush when taxes, military conscription, and labour quotas became too onerous to bear.

The new age of migration, 1900–2000

The first significant wave of Senegalese immigrants to France occurred in the early twentieth century and consisted mainly of those who worked as merchant marines, and later settled in the métropôle after WWI. The second wave occurred after WWII and included students destined for administrative jobs in Dakar, as well as veterans who had fought on the side of the French in both world wars. Labour migrants from across francophone Africa were recruited to work in French industries and on infrastructure projects as part of post-war reconstruction of Europe. 

Yet, when the oil crisis of 1973 hit and economic recession set in, France quickly abandoned its worker recruitment programmes. In 1986, Senegalese citizens were suddenly required to obtain an entry visa before travelling to France. What this meant in practical terms for aspiring migrants was that unless they had someone already in France who could sponsor their visa application, legal pathways to Europe were abruptly, and very drastically, limited.

Unfortunately, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Back in Senegal, rising birth rates, declining agricultural production, increasing urbanisation, and economic hardship associated with the imposition of structural adjustment policies all contributed to growing insecurity. To cope with such rising insecurity, the Senegalese did what they had always done: they migrated elsewhere for work. Though France had been a major destination, Spain and Italy, with their comparatively open immigration policies, became the new destinations for Senegalese on the move in the late twentieth century.

The age of securitisation, 2000–present

As economic conditions in Senegal deteriorated, more young people came to see Europe as a beacon of security. For those who lacked connections to Europe, one of the few alternatives was to attempt to migrate clandestinely. Between 2005 and 2008, tens of thousands of Senegalese migrants attempted to cross the Atlantic in wooden pirogues heading for the Canary Islands. In 2006 alone, over 40,000 arrived on the Spanish archipelago. In an attempt to halt the ‘flood’, the EU expanded maritime patrols off the coast of Senegal, largely through Frontex operations, which effectively crippled the western Atlantic route to Europe.

Though many state officials, as well as some scholars, optimistically declared in 2009 that boat migration out of Senegal was over, what happened was that rather than stopping migration, patrols simply redirected it. As one repatriated migrant in Senegal put it to me, “with Frontex, migration just moves elsewhere”.

Since the implementation of Frontex’s Operation Hera in 2005, maritime routes have been shifting overland to North Africa where one can buy passage across the Mediterranean. In this way, border controls can actually create what Martin Lemberg-Pedersen calls “border-induced displacement”. When the West African route was crippled, migrants already on the move re-directed their transit to Morocco or Libya. Rather than stopping movement, border securitisation – not presumed ‘slave traders’ – forced prospective Senegalese and other West African migrants to take more circuitous and thus more dangerous routes.

“With Frontex, migration just moves elsewhere”


Returning to the question that opened this essay: are irregular migrants today really enslaved? I argue that ‘slavery’ is not a helpful term to characterise Senegalese migrants who engage in mobility; for them, migration is part of a long-standing voluntary and historically salient practice. Though they do face more exploitation along their journeys to Europe today than in the past, this is due to the fact that border securitisation has made safe entry an impossibility for most.

Today, Senegalese migration across the Mediterranean is far from over. In 2016, Senegalese migrants were among the top ten nationalities to arrive in Italy. Contemporary mobilities are not the result of ‘slave traders’; rather, irregular migration today is a result of policies that have rendered such movements, and the people who undertake them, illegal, and thus more vulnerable to exploitation.

For Senegalese migrants, the Mediterranean route is but the newest path in a long line of trajectories that have been shifting across land and water for years. In the final analysis, higher border security generally correlates with higher potential for exploitation. Such an assessment disrupts the idea that migrants are victims to depraved and immoral ‘slave traders’. Rather, Senegalese migrants are continuing to adapt to increasingly securitised borders as a way to survive.

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