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At the Guédiawaye town hall in Dakar, Senegal's capital, the community attends a unique community event – a film screening and a debate about irregular migration. Courtesy: International Organization for Migration (IOM)/Alioune Ndiaye

DAKAR, Dec 10 2018 (IPS) - It is four o’clock in the afternoon in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, when pupils, students and workers begin to fill the municipal town halls of Grand Yoff and Sociocultural Centre Grand Médine to attend a unique community event – a film screening and a debate.

What they hear there surprises them.

Men and women, both in person and on video, relate stories of human suffering, exploitation and abuse they experienced on their journeys as irregular migrants.

“You are beaten, threatened with weapons, you lose all your rights as soon as you enter this country. You are sold by your own brothers.” It is one of the poignant testimonies heard in a 45-minute documentary made by returnee migrants and with the support of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

IOM is running a unique Migrants as Messengers (MaM) programme in Senegal, Guinea and Nigeria. It is a peer to peer messaging campaign that shares information about the dangers of irregular migration as told through the stories of returnee migrants. IOM has trained 80 returnee migrants in these three countries on how to interview and collect the stories of fellow returnees. The campaign also uses innovative mobile technology to empower migrants to share their experiences and to provide a platform for others to do the same.

A young man at Grand Médine town hall in Dakar, Senegal, engages in a discussion about irregular migration. Credit: Samuelle Paul Banga/IPS

The town hall discussions

The town hall screenings are also part of the campaign. They offer the community and returnee migrants a platform to share their stories since a participatory approach is used and the film is followed by a debate in French and in the local language, Wolof.

Back at the town halls in Dakar, during both screenings, silence reigns supreme for 45 minutes.

Those who sit in attendance look clearly stunned by the depth of suffering explained through the testimonies of the returnee migrants.

“We have seen and survived,” Ndèye Fatou Sall, a MaM volunteer, tells IPS. She lived previously in Saudi Arabia where she was employed as a domestic worker.

One thread is common through most of the discussions here. And it is that the youth resort to irregular migration in order to find work and better opportunities for themselves that they feel are not available to them at home. Many are driven and supported by their families, who have significant influence over their lives. In some cases, families use all of their savings to send their sons to Europe.

“Personally, I left because of my family. When I got my [Bachelor’s degree]…my mother saw that the sons of other families went abroad easily. So she used all her savings to finance my trip,” Issa Ngom says during the discussion at Grand Médine. After a few months amid harsh living conditions he decided to return to Senegal.

“I think we need to do a lot more outreach and show young people the opportunities [at home]. But we must go beyond because the reality is that most kids hang out on the streets, drinking tea all day instead of finding things to do,” Aminata Diop says during the session at Grand Yoff Dakar.

You can succeed at home

IOM volunteer Seckouba Cissé agrees during the debate that, “It’s not the trip that will make you a successful man.”

“We are used to blaming just the youth for all, because we dismiss them as people without ambition. But we never implement a policy to encourage young people to generate local wealth,” Cissé says.

Babacar Gueye, a young graduate who is currently looking for a job, explains during the Grand Yoff session that the money used to travel irregularly to Europe could be better invested in creating work opportunities at home.

“I went to Europe and I came back. The money you spend to go there to suffer, you can invest it here in Senegal to find something to do. We refuse to stay [home] because the family puts pressure on us to ‘succeed’; we get tired of this word.”

One thread is common through most of the discussions here. And it is that the youth resort to irregular migration in order to find work and better opportunities for themselves that they feel are not available to them at home. Courtesy: International Organization for Migration (IOM)/Alioune Ndiaye

The dangers behind irregular migration

But the poignant testimonies in the film made Charle Diatta aware of the realities and the risks involved with irregular migration. He speaks up during the debate and says he wants the returnee migrants to warn his cousins about this.

“I have cousins ​​in Yarakh who want to go to Europe, and I want you to go there, if possible, in order to try to make them aware before it’s too late.”

The screening of the film and the resultant debate is part of IOM’s impact evaluation approach “to measure the dimension of community engagement, public interaction with returning migrants volunteers; as well as to touch the perception of indigenous peoples on the issues of irregular migration and migrant status,” Marilena Crosato, media engagement and advocacy at IOM Senegal, tells IPS.

A total of 16 screening and debate sessions are being held throughout Senegal. And returnee migrants are actively working as volunteers and stakeholders to raise awareness.

And many of them are using the MaM Facebook page to share their experiences. Though it is on social media where many feel they first saw distorted realities of what it was like to live as irregular migrants in Europe.

Participants at the Grand Yoff session say that social networks can be shimmering surreal things that belie the true facts of irregular migration.

“Because of the beautiful photos and videos about life in Europe that my friends sent me, I was about to leave so as to have such a good life too,” Djiby Sakho says.

But the town hall screening and debate has shown him the darker side of the journey.

  • Additional reporting by Samuelle Paul Banga in Dakar.