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Mohammadou and the Migrant-Eaters

Mother Mercy arrived one hour late. Her car stopped on the sandy Senegalese backstreet right outside the doorway; she stepped out of the passenger seat and strode into the bare, ramshackle locales of her collective for women who had lost their sons to boat migration. A crisp black dress laced with silvery strands flowed around her as she sashayed past, talking loudly into her mobile; on her wrist glittered a large watch. "Ah, excusez-moi," she said, switching from Wolof on the phone to French, momentarily addressing me as I waited behind a wooden table in the corner. "The traffic jams . . ." She sat down and snapped her fingers to command the attention of her assistant, a rotund woman behind a rickety counter at the back of the room. The assistant promptly brought her calendar, whose pages already spoke of visits to France, Italy, and Spain: Mother Mercy was a busy, busy woman. She flipped through the pages with one hand as she clutched her mobile with the other, giving orders and managing appointments in an executive stream of Wolof and French while jotting down the details of another trip abroad.

It was at this point that I realized something strange was happening in the world of clandestine migration.

Middle-aged women in flowing reds, greens, and yellows trickled into the office, went up to the counter, and gave 525 francs CFA (one dollar) to the assistant, daily debt payments in the microcredit scheme Mother Mercy had set up for the members of her Dakar-based collective. Many of them had, like her, lost a son to the waves. A poster on the wall next to the counter trumpeted, "Non aux pirogues de la mort!" (Say no to the boats of death!)

Eventually Mother Mercy hung up and slid a brochure across the table. "Our collective started its work with our sons losing their lives." She had switched to a soft, maternal voice that sounded as though it had been through hundreds of rehearsals. As it turned out, this was indeed the case. Her outfit had been fêted by journalists and politicians from London to Las Palmas since the fateful days of 2006, when fishing boats packed with migrants had departed from Senegal for the faraway Canary Islands. "Mother Mercy," which the media soon insisted on calling her because of her brave "battle against migration," had graced the screens and pages of the BBC and France2, Glamour and Elle magazines, the Washington Post, France's Libération and Le Monde, Spain's El País . . . the list was endless. She flicked through the brochure detailing the collective's good works, temporarily ignoring the incessant ring of her mobile. "Our campaigns have put a stop to illegal migration," she said, despite the "meager means" at their disposal. "We have to work hard to fixer les jeunes (keep the youth in place)."

The media and politicians had praised her efforts to keep the youth in place through so-called sensibilisation (sensitization), awareness-raising campaigns about the "risks of illegal migration." Her work was "more effective than all the warships and planes sent to the Atlantic Ocean by the European Union," the BBC had said in 2006. If so, Mother Mercy was a victim of her own success. By 2010, the boats had stopped departing, and funding was slowly leeching away. "We have to continue our work," she said. "If we do sensitization here, people just depart from elsewhere," which meant they had to spread the message across the whole country, even over the whole region! "La sensibilisation n'a pas de deadline," she said distractedly while typing a number into her mobile, then calling. My brief audience was over.

I went outside and called Mohammadou. "Tell him you got the number from me," Mother Mercy had said, scribbling it on a piece of paper. Soon enough Mohammadou came ambling towards the office. He was the president of the local association of young repatriates from Spain but cut a poor figure for such a lofty title in his loose jeans, plastic sandals, and old jacket, a cap resting on his head. He said a brief, unsmiling hello and then led me into the sand-swept lanes of his neighborhood. Yongor, as I will call it, was a fishing village swallowed by the urban sprawl of Dakar that had been particularly hard hit by boat migration. It was from here that Mohammadou and his friends had once set off, and it was here that they now lingered, jobless and immobile, nursing the wound of their one-time deportation.

"What can you offer us?" Mohammadou blurted out as we walked towards the beach, the stale air carrying smells of putrid fish and gasoline. "And what do you want?" The order of his questions seemed topsy-turvy, but it was so for a reason: he had seen too many visitors already. On a corner, two women in bright robes squatted next to a cart piled high with mangoes, children scuttling round them in the pale, hot sand. Walking past, I tried to think of suitable replies but had none to offer him.

At the family home of Ali, a brawny repatriate in his twenties, the crash of the waves whispered through narrow lanes whose walls were scrawled with the phone numbers of neighbors' relatives in Spain and France. Ali wedged a wooden bench into the sand, and Mohammadou sat down and got his notebook out. He flicked through page after page of names, numbers, and e-mails of all those who had come to see his repatriates' association. The contact details of journalists, researchers, students, NGO workers, even an E.U. delegate adorned the pages. He had never heard back from any of them. "A lot of people have passed by here, but every time they go back to Europe, there's nothing." Ali nodded and shared out his only cigarette, Mohammadou drawing the last bit of smoke from its dying embers. "Ils mangent sur nous" (they eat from us), Mohammadou said, his mouth twisting into what would soon become a familiar frown. Even the aid organizations ate their money, while the repatriates got nothing. "I am the president, and I have to ask him for a cigarette. Do you think this is normal?" Mohammadou said angrily, nodding towards his friend.

The repatriates had had enough. They did not want to speak to researchers or reporters any longer. They felt embittered and angry with the fact finders and delegations-not to mention with the interlocutor of these toubabs, or white people, in Yongor, Mother Mercy. "Why did she send you to us?" Mohammadou asked with a twisted smile. It was a rhetorical question that was to become a standing joke during the coming year. "Because you don't bring any money. If you had come in a four-wheel drive, she would have invited you to her house."

The Birth of a Tragedy

The wave of clandestine migration hit the shores of Senegal and the front pages of European newspapers in the summer of 2006. The sudden sight of brashly painted wooden boats groaning under the weight of disheveled Africans had come as a shock and surprise to the news-reading public and Spanish police alike, but the signs and premonitions had been there. The previous year, sub-Saharan migrants stuck in Morocco had launched the infamous mass attempt to climb the fences surrounding Ceuta and Melilla. The ensuing crackdown pushed clandestine routes southwards: first to Morocco-occupied Western Sahara, then to the desert state of Mauritania along the Atlantic coast, and finally farther south to Senegal and beyond. A direct route had suddenly opened up from West Africa to Europe, and youth from Senegal and farther afield saw their chance to hitch a ride. In 2006 almost thirty-two thousand people landed in the Canary Islands, fifteen hundredkilometers of rough Atlantic to the northwest of Dakar.

Boats had landed in earlier years in the archipelago's smaller easterly islands, often carrying Sahrawis and Moroccans, but it was with the West African arrivals in Tenerife and Gran Canaria that an extraordinary spectacle unfolded. Tourists in swimsuits rushed to assist exhausted migrants on the beaches, and soon the media "set up a show" in port, as one local migration scholar recalled. A moral panic over the human "tsunami" or "avalanche" washing over the islands was reinforced with each day's fresh tally. Never mind that in 2006, amid the clamor over that year's thirty-two thousand boat arrivals, about ten million travelers passed through just Gran Canaria's airport, including large numbers of labor migrants from Europe and Latin America: the storyline about irregular migration was set and framed through racial images of an unstoppable invasion.

The media hysteria also reached West Africa, where newscasts showed how a new route had suddenly opened to Spain-and was soon to close down with the deployment of European sea patrols. It was now or never.

"This is the big chance, we mustn't lose it," young men reasoned in Senegal's seaside fishing hamlets, according to Ousmane, a theater producer and community leader. "It was generalized madness." Women scrambled their savings together to finance the trip; young men bartered their family belongings. The captains of the boats became sudden heroes, and women sang their praise. Everyone wanted to leave on mbëkë mi, the Wolof term for the journey that literally means "hitting one's head." "At that time, everyone talked of the forecast," Ousmane recalled: people checked obsessively for the best weather conditions in which to depart. Rumors were spreading. Spain wanted more migrants to come and work! The expressway to Europe was open! Fishermen-turned-smugglers loaded their large wooden canoes with cans of petrol, bottles of water, and supplies of dry food. They consulted the marabouts (Muslim religious leaders), collected the money for the "tickets," set their GPS for Tenerife, and off they went, boatload after boatload of willing workers. Barça walla barzakh was their motto:"Barcelona or the afterlife." Men who hesitated to join in the boat craze were ridiculed as effeminate and weak of will. People said "Jéleen gaal yi, jigeen yi jél avion yi!" Ousmane reminisced: take the boat, [only] women take the plane!

After the mania came the fall. Police detained and imprisoned those who had been forced to return while the death count added up at high sea. Relatives' phone calls were left unanswered. Boats disappeared with their human cargo, never to be heard of again. Thousands died in the waves; no one knows exactly how many.

Mohammadou's fishing village was a pioneering terrain for mbëkë mi, and its youth suffered worse knocks than those of other coastal communities. While some local convoyeurs (smugglers) and maraboutshad made good money out of the boat craze, losses were adding up across the neighborhood. Wives, children, and parents were left bereaved and often bereft of income. Walking along the lanes of Yongor, Mohammadou invoked the dead at every turn. "Do you see her?" he said as we passed a woman in her thirties carrying a bucketful of goods on her head. "She lost her husband, she lost five family members, that's why she has to work now." He nodded towards friends, saying, "He was in my boat" or "In his house three people died." He had tried counting the dead, but his mother had told him to stop when he reached 475-the effort was ripping open barely healed wounds. "Everyone has lost someone here."

If the boat arrivals in the Canaries had triggered the first media frenzy, the tragedy back in Senegal now set off another. Journalists descended on the country's seaside communities in search of stories on the dead, the missing and the deported-and Yongor was at the center of their attentions. A 2006 visit to the neighborhood by the French presidential hopeful Ségolène Royal spurred the reporters on and put Mother Mercy and her association in the spotlight. Yongor went "from dire anonymity to world fame," as one news report put it: it was becoming a privileged stage for what the Spanish media and politicians liked to call the "drama of immigration."

By 2010, the wave of clandestine migration had receded. But in its wake a confrontation had spread across Yongor and beyond, pitting mothers against sons and former migrants against one another. I had come there looking for stories about the fraught sea journeys and the brief, extraordinary arrival of Senegalese fishing boats at the heart of Western leisure migration, the playas of Tenerife and Gran Canaria. So had hundreds of other researchers and journalists. The repatriates' tragedies had been told and retold to countless visitors, but their resentment about this retelling opened a new line of inquiry. As I left Ali and Mohammadou on their bench, I was already intrigued by their simple, recurrent question: who benefits from illegal migration, and how?

Mohammadou and his repatriated friends would in the coming year help me analyze who the winners and losers were in the illegality industry at Europe's southern frontier. This industry, built around the fight against illegal migration and drawing in the media, defense contractors, civil society, politicians, academics, and police, has-among other achievements-put the unemployed repatriates to work. The repatriates deter any "potential candidates for illegal migration" from even trying the journey; they bring in money for local associations, NGOs, and politicians; and they provide compelling stories for journalists and academics alike.

But it is not enough to consider how, in Mohammadou's words, everyone "ate" from migration. His question about illicit gains led to other, deeper quandaries. Why this fascination with the unfortunate travelers of the high seas? And why, despite this fascination among aid workers, journalists, and politicians, were they sidestepped as the illegality industry rolled into Dakar and other West African departure points from 2006? Beyond its much-vaunted "success" in fighting migration, what social realities did this industry leave behind in Senegal's seaside neighborhoods?During my visits to Yongor in 2010 and 2011 that structure this chapter, I would try to find answers to these questions.

Migrants as Human Deterrents

Mohammadou often picked me up at the highway roaring out of Dakar as I came back after my fieldwork excursions along migrant routes through Morocco, Mali, and Spain. A Ford billboard towered over the fume-choked junction: "Drive one," it exhorted, next to a picture of a slick four-wheel drive. If such a car ever slogged up the sand-whipped lanes of Yongor it was bound to belong to either a local dignitary, an expatriate in Dakar's booming aid industry, or a modou-modou, the Wolof term for rags-to-riches emigrants who in recent decades have come to embody success in Senegal. On our walks of Yongor, we sometimes met modou-modou back on visits from Europe, big-boned and well-fed men sporting new jeans and confident smiles. Their houses, built with remittances from Spain, Italy, or France, reminded the repatriates of their failed journeys at every turn.

If the modou-modouadvertised the benefits of departure, the repatriates were their abject inverse: walking billboards testifying to the futility of boat migration. Failure was broadcasted by their sullen faces, their empty pockets, their shattered dreams. They had used up their savings to pay up to five hundred thousand CFA (one thousand dollars) for a journey in a packed boat only to be intercepted, detained, and sent back from detention centers such as the one I had visited in the Canaries. Their friends had died in the rough seas. Some had turned back before reaching the archipelago; others, like Mohammadou, had been diverted to Western Sahara, where internment and expulsion to the Mauritanian border awaited. Mohammadou told me how he had spent days walking back and forth in the desert no-man's-land between Moroccan and Mauritanian border posts, soldiers forcing the migrants to retreat at gunpoint, until Senegal's president intervened. Eventually Mohammadou made it back home, penniless. The migrants' dreams had swiftly turned into the stuff of nightmares.

The shame of return was shattering. Sometimes tricked onto their deportation flights by police who told them they were being sent to mainland Spain, sometimes promised a money envelope that ended up containing as little as ten thousand CFA, the repatriates eventually made it home. Some slept on beaches or hid with acquaintances, too ashamed to face their families. Their shame was not just a family disaster, however. It was also a dissuasive weapon, as I would learn in the Spanish embassy, a world away from Yongor and its miseries.


The embassy, a whitewashed edifice in central Dakar's Plateau District, was an operation in constant expansion. As the migrant boats kept coming in 2005 and 2006, Spain suddenly "discovered" sub-Saharan Africa. The country's Socialist government embarked on a political offensive in West Africa and opened new embassies across the region. Under its first Africa Plan, launched amid the growing boat crisis in the Canaries, Madrid also doubled overseas development aid to sub-Saharan Africa between 2006 and 2010. The Dakar expansion was part of this. In the years following the visits of ministers and the Spanish premier in 2006, a new consulate had been built, an export promotion office had opened, and Interior and Labor Ministry attachés had set up shop.

Raúl was one of these attachés, a friendly police officer who had years of experience in migration controls in Senegal. He had lived through the heady times of 2006. "The waiter in the café where I go for breakfast told me one morning, 'Tomorrow I'm leaving, I'm heading to Spain!'" Raúl laughed. The media fed the phenomenon, he said, spreading rumors from the Canaries, where those who had arrived "told of how you call the police as you arrive to the coast, then the police take you to a room where you get food three times a day, you can even repeat, and after some time they bring you to Spain." Then the repatriations began, tentatively in early summer and with full force a few months later. "Now you knew that you might be selected for repatriation, so will you risk losing your job here only to be sent back?"

The migration patrols launched in 2006 by Frontex and the Spanish Guardia Civil had of course contributed to the fall in arrivals, Raúl said, but the repatriations were even more important. According to him, these were "the principal weapon of dissuasion" in the fight against illegal migration. "It's tough but it's the best option." The repatriate "is worth much more than whatever publicity campaign you can think of doing," he said. Repatriation is "very difficult, very painful, very tough," but it "transmits the idea that you shouldn't leave."

His colleagues hammered home the same message. Raúl's fellow attaché, the head of the Guardia Civil's patrolling operations in Senegal, called repatriation an "efecto llamada al revés" (reverse "pull" effect). The Spanish ambassador likewise saw it as the principal form of dissuasion. "There are villages that have received people back who have risked their lives, who have risked their money, and who have failed." Now, thanks in part to the repatriates, he made clear, people thought twice about even trying.

The Canaries repatriations were but one instance of the rise of what migration scholars have called a global "deportation regime." In a pattern repeated across the rich world, states increasingly defend and enact their sovereignty against those who violate the boundaries of the nation-poor migrants and refugees whose subjection to discrimination, abuse, and disciplinary power is being catalogued from Israel to El Salvador. The intentional use of mass repatriation as weapon of dissuasion in the Canaries gave a performative angle to the workings of this international deportation regime.Rather than simply being disciplined, the Senegalese repatriates were put to work as human deterrents within the illegality industry.

To implement repatriation-as-deterrence, Spain had entered into a grand bargain with Senegal. In exchange for joint patrols and repatriations, Spain promised money and favors. This created a virtuous circle for officialdom. Development cooperation smoothed the way for police initiatives while humanizing the cold, dissuasive logic of repatriation. In its "new generation" of migration accords, signed across the West African region from 2006, Spain followed the European Union's so-called global approach to migration, launched after the 2005 tragedies at Ceuta and Melilla. Through this three-pronged approach-encompassing migration controls in sending countries, the promotion of legal migration, and development assistance-Madrid padded the steeliness of policing and deportation with financial rewards and warm diplomatic words. And it soon seemed to be working perfectly. Between 2006 and 2010, arrivals in the Canaries dropped from thirty-two thousand to two hundred a year. The Spanish model of "externalization," increasingly emulated by other European countries, seemed to have cracked the code of how to control migration in a humane, cooperative fashion.

The path to cooperation had not been smooth, however. The Senegalese president, Abdoulaye Wade, was faced with a conundrum in the summer of 2006. Elections were approaching, and the opposition was ready to exploit the humiliation of repatriations. As more Senegalese migrants were sent back from the Canaries, the anger boiled over among them. "We called on all of the youth, everyone came out," recalled Moctar, the president of the national association of repatriates. "We decided to make some noise . . . we will burn the country!" Riots raged on the roads of Dakar, and repatriates fought with police. They were finally summoned to see the president, who had briefly wavered on allowing repatriations but was now swiftly forging a coherent response to the crisis. To placate the repatriates, he had an offer: Spanish-sponsored development projects and work visas would come their way. More important, these deals would also help calm the opposition.

First out in this softer part of the Spanish-Senegalese migration strategy was Plan REVA (Retour vers l'Agriculture,or "back to agriculture"). This plan, a brainchild of Wade's, was meant to integrate returned migrants into a modernized farming sector. In September 2006, Senegal's interior minister announced a firm Spanish offer of twenty million euros of development aid-initially broached at the time of the first repatriations in June-in part destined for this plan. REVA would be beset by accusations of squandered money, government nepotism, and propaganda. The repatriates, briefly wooed by the president, also refused to endorse it. They were fishermen, not farmers, and dreamed of real jobs, not tilling the soil. The Spanish money, it was widely rumored, had, instead of helping the youth, funded Wade's reelection campaign in 2007.

Another aspect of the strategy was the handing out of "visas." Spain had launched a recruitment program (contratación en origen) "in order to prevent what was happening, people going to Spain by boat illegally," as Ismael, the Spanish Labor Ministry attaché, bluntly put it. But the repatriates were again sidelined, despite initial promises; they had an entry ban on Europe, and Madrid had no wish to encourage more departures by rewarding those sent back. Instead, the visascheme became a high-stakes political game. While some relatives of repatriates were quietly offered places on the flights to Spain, visas were also bartered and sold by repatriate "leaders" or offered to members of Wade's party. Soon accusations flew in all directions.

A few visas reached Yongor, where Mohammadou would play a part in selecting recipients. Sitting in his one-room home next to the beach, his little children coming and going as we spoke, he recalled the visa debacle in 2007. "One day they called me," he said. "They told me, 'You have won a visa, so you should come here tomorrow at eight o'clock.'" He went to the national youth employment agency, in charge of visa allocations, the following morning. "I did the paperwork, I did everything!" Still, no news came. The next month they called him again, saying he should wait for another round of contracts, this time for fishermen. Again, he said, "I did my paperwork with the Spaniards. After that, I've seen nothing." As the repatriates were sidestepped for visas, they became ever more resentful at their exclusion, from which Mohammadou still smarted, four years later.

The battle over visas sometimes took bizarre turns, as in the 2008 round of contratación of more than seven hundred women to go and work the strawberry fields of Andalusia. The tricky bit was to "break with the cultural schema of Senegal," Ismael said. The Senegalese had insisted that half ought to be male, but "we explained that a certain gentleness is needed in the harvesting of this product." The real reason, of course, was different. The women had to have "family charges in Senegal" so that they would be sure to return, the attaché explained, as had also been the case in similar programs between Morocco and Spain. The result was a bevy of well-connected women, all "high heels and makeup" as one Spanish NGO worker recalled, descending on the rough terrains of Andalusia. The strategy had backfired, and some women even stayed on. Ismael blamed the "disaster" on the Senegalese administration, whose preselection of candidates had been jumbled. But as could have been expected, the rich and well-connected had won out in the scramble for visas. Then the crisis hit the Spanish economy, and no more contracts were being offered. The contracts were "an emergency system," Ismael admitted, but "the fact that there are no contracts now doesn't mean that we have abandoned Senegal."

A third aspect of the strategy was the awareness-raising campaigns, promoted by overseas development agencies and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Based in the expatriate haven of Mamelles along Dakar's shoreline, this intergovernmental body-often erroneously thought of as a UN agency-regularly received government financing for its "migration management" programs, often targeting irregular flows. In 2010 alone, it raised $265 million worldwide for its work on "voluntary returns," countertrafficking, and border management. Now, amid the Senegalese "boat crisis," it received a "rapid response" injection of one million euros in E.U. funds to build state capacity on irregular migration, provide assistance to returned migrants, and conduct sensitization campaigns.

The IOM's campaigns applied the sensibilisation format common across French-speaking West Africa on anything from desertification campaigns to disease prevention. In public meetings, wise words from "community leaders" were mixed with testimony from former migrants, who sometimes were referred to as having been "vaccinated" against the wish to depart. "Sensitization shouldn't be only about the risks, not only 'you might die on the way,'" said one European IOM officer. "It should also be about the fact that you might not get a job in Spain, you might not have a nice life there." This positive spin on the campaigns betrayed a common unease among expatriate workers at the anti-migration effort. In previous years gruesome images of bloated bodies and sunken boats had appeared on Senegalese television in an effort by the Spanish government to stem the flow. While the IOM had run similar television campaigns across the region, it also followed a softer strategy incorporating cartoons, theater, and speech-making competitions. It had first conducted campaigns in fishing hamlets before branching out to sending zones inland, where people still did not know much about the risks, according to the officer. "There's never enough sensitization," she concluded, echoing Mother Mercy's words.

Amid the proliferation of local actors in the deterrence game, Mother Mercy stood out from the competition with her grassroots appeal. After the death of her only son on his journey towards the Canaries, she had converted her previous local development association into a women's collective fighting illegal migration. Besides focusing on sensibilisation, the association's women also kept an eye on Yongor's youth in case they tried a clandestine journey. This meant the women, once blamed for financing and encouraging their sons' fatal departures, now attracted a different kind of ire. As Mother Mercy recognized, the association's work was "very difficult," not least "because in fishing communities the woman does not have responsibility and should not take initiatives." But she had strong backers. Her forceful anti-departure narrative attracted the funders-and the police. "The mothers have helped quite a lot," quipped the Guardia Civil chief. One academic writer on the association noted how the mothers, caught like their sons between the promises of European wealth and the vagaries of Senegal's battered economy, could either choose to live off migrants' money transfers or rely on funds given for their cooperation in halting migration. By converting her association into a vehicle for anti-departure rhetoric, Mother Mercy had chosen the latter strategy, but her reasons for doing so were complex and sometimes at odds with those of her backers. Her collective was created "because we have lost so many youth," she later told me, in between criticism of how Europe was closing its doors while spending all its migration money on Frontex instead of on job-generating projects. "My son left with eighty friends, and they all disappeared at sea; that's what pushed me as a woman to call on my sisters who had suffered the same [fate] to organize a structure to fight this scourge." For a time, the priorities of bereaved Senegalese mothers and European police coincided-yet it was a fragile alliance that tragically divided families, genders, and generations who in fact held a shared concern with the injustices behind the fatal departures.

The repatriates, seeing the rapid and unequal spread of benefits from clandestine migration, had been deported, deceived, and made destitute. Now the work contracts and aid money bypassed them. The Senegalese president "has promised a lot of things that we haven't seen," Moctar said. "They have done nothing, nothing at all, absolutely nothing." But the initial anger had dissipated amid the undignified scramble for visas and funds. Soon the lure of the illegality industry would prove irresistible. Mohammadou and his repatriated colleagues wanted a share of the spoils. They wanted someone to listen. Above all, they wanted funding partners from Europe, and they knew that to find any they had to obey the rules of the deterrence game. As a result, they started fashioning themselves in the very guise preferred by Western donors and politicians: as real clandestins working to deter potential candidates for illegal migration.

On the corrugated iron door to the office of Mohammadou's association, a shack doubling up as mobile phone repair shop on the main road leading into Yongor, their motto had been printed atop a painting of a wooden boat: halte à l'émigration clandestine (halt illegal emigration), an increasingly present and pernicious slogan in the Dakar aid world. "It's thanks to us that no one is leaving anymore," Mohammadou kept repeating, as did Mother Mercy. Yet her offices, some hundred meters away from the repatriates' shack, were a constant reminder of who the European donors believed: the logos of Spanish development agencies crowned her portico, and four-wheel-drives and taxis kept pulling up at her porch.

Mohammadou's association had no funding partners, and so their projects-on equipping Yongor's ailing fishing fleet, on creating chicken coops, on professional training for would-be or one-time clandestins-failed to take off. But in asserting their role in fighting illegal emigration, the repatriates signaled an awareness of their crucial role as human deterrents.

The beach, down Yongor's maze of lanes, was strewn with litter and crammed like a car park with wooden fishing boats. It was bigger versions of such boats-known as gaal gi in Wolof, pirogues in French, and cayucos in Spanish-that had once taken Mohammadou and his friends to the Canary Islands. The boats were long and slender, painted in brash, beautiful colors: red against yellow, deep green and black. The names of Senegalese wrestlers and maraboutshad been written on the hulls. Occasional German or Spanish flags hung limply in the windless air. Industrial fishing boats rested on the horizon. Children scuttled past, deftly skirting fish bones, nets, and household debris.

"Look at the boat out there!" Mohammadou suddenly exclaimed. "It's the garde espagnole." The Guardia Civil's patrolling vessel came every day, he said. It was just sitting there, observing, like a well-trained beast ready to pounce on any trespassers. "It can't stop us," he said. "If no money comes soon from Europe we will set off again. . . . This time we'll be one hundred thousand, or thousands of twelve-year-olds." It sounded like a warning from someone aware of both the depiction of migrants as a threatening force and the legal constraints in deporting the increasing number of unaccompanied children arriving along Spanish coasts. The repatriates' effort to convince impatient youth to bide their time was the reason no one was leaving, Mohammadou made clear. This unpaid work of putting a brake on the runaway tales of the boat craze era was done silently, away from the spotlight. "We are waiting now for any development projects to come through from Europe," insisted Mohammadou. Their patience would not last forever.

Mohammadou and his friends were recoiling from the passivity of their repatriation. They placed deterrence in their actions and speech, not just their bodies. It was a message that kept falling on deaf ears, however. Despite the European largesse, no partners appeared. Instead, their attempts to share in the spoils of the illegality industry had led to their being co-opted into Europe's human deterrence program.

Migrants as Money Spinners

It was late spring 2010, and Mohammadou and I sought refuge from the heat blowing in from the Sahelian plains in a mud-floor courtyard shaded by a guerté toubab tree. His friends leaned against a wall, fishing nets spread out at their feet that they mended with deft movements, threading cord through the frayed edges. Fishing had long been the main métierof Yongor's Lebou inhabitants, who, scattered in seaside hamlets across Dakar's Cap Vert peninsula, were the Senegalese capital's original population. Now a fishing crisis racked their neighborhoods. Mohammadou had once worked as a mareyeur, selling fish and seafood, but no longer. Stocks had depleted in part because of an explosion in small-scale fishing, caused by Senegal's worsening economy and the motorization of pirogues. The biggest culprit in the emptying of the seas, however, was the sale of fishing rights to other states, not least Spain. The foreign trawlers resting on Yongor's horizon swallowed tons of fish destined for European and Asian markets. This, Mother Mercy and Mohammadou agreed, was why so many had tried to leave in 2006, embarking in the very boats they had previously used for fishing: here there were no jobs to be had.

Unlike other groups in Senegal, the Lebous had relatively little experience of long-distance migration. The Soninké of the Senegal River valley, for instance, had long depended on circular migration as a means of income and a rite of passage, while Wolof traders had lately branched out to Europe and elsewhere through tight-knit Mourid Muslim networks. The Lebous, by contrast, had at most embarked upon seasonal fishing expeditions towards Mauritania or Guinea, their lives structured by the sea. Yet as for fishermen elsewhere in West Africa, the dwindling fisheries and the sudden opening of clandestine routes had now pushed them to try their luck on the boats, where their familiarity with the sea made them useful as captains or helpers. The resulting journeys in sea-battered pirogues were but the most extreme outcome of a deepening global economic divide, policed by European sentinels off Dakar's coastline.

Mohammadou leaned back, sipped some bittersweet attaya, and repeated what was soon to become a familiar sum of money. "Do you know how much Wade and his government have earned from illegal migration?" he asked. "Thirteen billion CFA! And what has he done for us? Nothing." The amount-referring to the twenty million euros in Spanish aid offered at the time of the 2006 deportations-was lambasted not just by Mohammadou but also by repatriates up and down Senegal's coastline. Word circulated on how much money Wade had received per repatriate. "La migration clandestine a beaucoup d'argent," Mohammadou insisted (there is lots of money in illegal migration).

In Kayar, a fishing hamlet and tourist magnet north of Dakar, repatriates told the same bitter story. "Lots of NGOs came here after 2006," said the president of Kayar's repatriate association, "but we didn't realize at the time that they were just trying to fill their own bellies." We were careful to meet with his fellow repatriates in a large room, with everyone present so that there would be no suspicions of anyone receiving money for talking. "You have to say in your book that all those who have passed by here have done nothing for us!" one of them insisted. NGOs, journalists, researchers had all come. "What have we got out of it?" they asked, voices rising. "It's been four years of talking!"

An acute awareness of what they saw as the great gains from illegality pervaded the repatriates' migration experience. Mohammadou and his friends sensed that moneymakers trailed them on their journey, during repatriation and at home-"swindlers" and "liars" ready to make a killing from boat migration. They saw it in sea rescues and patrols, in which boats were diverted from Spanish waters to Morocco, since the latter would then "earn money from the European Union." They saw it in the visits of E.U. delegates who come, "promise us things," and leave. They saw it in the scrum of journalists and researchers who "take our stories."And they saw it in the Western NGOs who "come here with their four-wheel-drives" only to speed off once they have received funding for their spurious migration projects.

I was no different from all those others, the more than one thousand people Mohammadou said had visited their association since 2006. What could I offer? Money? Partners? Contacts?

All I offered was to set up a website. Nothing as slick and stylish as that of Mother Mercy's collective, however. Not even a real website, mind, but a blog. The association's IT expert typed their posts onto his laptop in his bedroom after Mohammadou's attempts at hitting the right keys had failed. One of their first and only posts, in French, read like this:


First of all, please accept our warmest greetings. We would like to let you know that our association was created between 2006 and 2007 in order to try to fix the youth to stay in the country because after our repatriation we have seen that a big number of youth had died at sea, after some time of waiting we have started to do sensitization in the surrounding localities . . . but during this time we have received nothing from these promises even the European Union came to visit us last year with promises but none of that has been done. There are even people who talk about immigration without having experienced this scourge others content themselves with traveling to Europe by means of the repatriates and masquerade as people who come to find funding for the youth, while this is not the case because the money they bring in, they fill their bags with it. Even the projects and the visas that the Europeans gave to the repatriates have not arrived to those concerned. . . . This is why we turn to you so that at least we will have training centers to educate the youth, schools for the children of those who disappeared, and funding to find some kind of work. . . . We count on your understanding while waiting for assistance.


"You" did not come forward. No replies were forthcoming. With each attempt, and each visiting toubab,responsibility weighed heavier on Mohammadou's shoulders. He was the president; he should bring partners. "Ana liggéey bi?" (Where is the work?),members of the association asked, stopping to chat with him on the streets. Lacking a good response, Mohammadou grew increasingly bitter and angry; for, unlike some repatriate "leaders," he was sincere in seeking projects for the hundreds of repatriates in Yongor and their families, not just quick cash for himself.

Meanwhile Mother Mercy was raking in the money, as the repatriates saw it. They had initially trusted her, seeing her as the benevolent "mother of the migrants."Some even took loans she had negotiated, with sour aftereffects for both parties. As the repatriates were sidelined, acrimony grew. By 2010 the split was deep and definite. Before the boat crisis she had lived in a single room, the repatriates said; now she had a big, big house. She was driven around by a chauffeur and flew off to conferences in Europe, but she could not go down to the seafront because she would be hounded away. She was a liar. "All that she says is false," the repatriates kept repeating, like a record stuck in the same groove. She went and met funding agencies in Europe, then took the money but shared nothing. "One hundred thousand CFA bills, 150,000 CFA bills, she takes them out as if they were cigarettes," Mohammadou said with his trademark frown.

The repatriates' anger towards Mother Mercy was, of course, not the whole story. It was rather a symptom of the double trauma visited upon Yongor's inhabitants: first the deaths at sea, then the injustice of deportation and the unequal gains that followed.Mother Mercy was herself aware of the accusations. "People here think that when you are with a white person, he brings money," she told me, echoing the concerns of Mohammadou with his moneyless trail of researchers and reporters. "This creates problems and tensions in the community. [People say], I collect money here, I collect money there, but this is not the case!" Unlike Mohammadou's association, however, she at least maintained "vertical and horizontal relations" with Spanish donor organizations. The biggest funder was the Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional para el Desarrollo (AECID), the official Spanish development agency, which channeled money through Spanish NGOs. Their funding priorities, as I would soon see, held further clues to the role of the repatriates in Dakar's illegality industry.


In the AECID offices in central Dakar, Rocío leafed through her files, looking for budget expenditure on migration-related projects that I had asked her about, with little luck. She was a Spanish development worker in her forties, brimming with enthusiasm for development. Projects were carried over from year to year, she explained; it was hard to get precise figures. I asked her why the repatriates got nothing. She shrugged. "We're a development agency," she said. The funds "were for families who had lost someone, not for repatriates." Indeed, their projects were presented as being about female empowerment or for the "mother victims of the cayucos." Brochures filled up with pictures of smiling African women sewing, dancing, shoveling, and preparing fish, in what seemed a perfect example of the co-optation of once-radical development ideas by a larger state agenda. Rocío was keen to stress the gulf separating development aid and migration controls, however. "We don't want to know anything about that since it's not our field," she said and waved her hands as if pushing the patrols to one side. "That's all with the Interior Ministry."

Such purification of development aid was a major cleanup operation. Development assistance was independent from clandestine migration, the Spanish ambassador insisted, and rather depended on the Africa Plan's aim of fostering better relations with sub-Saharan nations. Leaving aside the fact that migration was already a fundamental part of this plan, the ambassador's view also contrasted with recent findings on Spanish aid to Africa. One comprehensive, AECID-funded study found that the country's NGOs had expanded strongly in sub-Saharan countries since 2006 thanks to exponentially growing official aid; that more than half of these NGOs had a tenuous previous connection to the continent; and that the official funds directed especially at Senegal, Mali, and Mauritania were closely related to irregular migration concerns. Another study focusing on these three countries similarly affirmed the "subordination of official development aid to Spain's migration policy" there while stating that Spanish funds might even have hampered the stated policies of this aid-poverty reduction, human rights, and democratic governance.

In the uneasy mixing of policing and poverty reduction, Spain's West African experiment was but an extreme case of the perils of "codevelopment." This approach, initiated in France, has meant seeing migrants as a factor in developing their home countries while contradictorily incorporating attempts to constrict such development-inducing migration flows. "Codevelopment," Rocío quipped, "is meant to prevent . . . or, well . . ." She tried again. It "could contribute to . . ." She stumbled. "It may or may not halt the departures." Migration concerns entered AECID's remit under "vulnerable groups such as minors," she explained, "who could later become fodder for illegal migration" (carne de migración clandestina). Maybe, she suggested, the repatriates could try to attract funding by presenting themselves as being vulnerable?

Before I left, Rocío looked over her shoulder towards the corridor, making sure no one was listening. "I say this since no one is here," she began, lowering her voice, "but obviously, what are the links between Spain and Senegal? There are none. Links usually come through a shared language, a shared history, but with Senegal and Mali there is none of that." She continued in a conspiratorial whisper: "It's clear there's a relation between [fighting] illegal migration and [funding] development here for Spain . . . though this topic is taboo."

As in other international aid encounters, Spain's migration-backed development push seemed like a case of "the emperors' new clothes." Everyone started speaking the language of fighting illegal migration, perpetuating the illusion that the emperor was fully clothed. The irony was that Spanish and E.U. politicians, in seeking to depoliticize their anti-migration operations through recourse to the language of drama on television and development on the ground, created a politicized development interface drawing in brokers, entrepreneurs, and swindlers. They were no longer in full control.

Through a trickle down of development aid, local associations willing to take part in the fight would be co-opted and contained. This was part of a pattern of clientelism and "everyday corruption" in Senegal, to be sure, but the illegality industry extended beyond this nexus to encompass European security, media, and policy sectors as well. The industry also depended on a signifier amenable to infinite manipulation: the "fodder for illegal migration," in Rocío's words. It was through this figure, in its IOM-promoted incarnation as potential candidate for illegal migration, that the business of migration had filtered down to the Senegalese grassroots.

International agencies, the Senegalese state, Western NGOs, and local associations were all at it. On the top of the food chain were the "expatriates" parachuted in from other diplomatic or IOM missions. Tasked with tempering the illicit movements of their Senegalese hosts, they mixed in Dakar's swish seaside restaurants and mingled on the city's expat party scene, where Guardia Civil officers on their three-month patrolling stints also made occasional appearances.

One step down the food chain followed a range of Senegalese ministries that had staked a claim in migration. While they in theory converged around the government's official line, honed over the summer of 2006, of "protecting" Senegalese citizens from the risks of the boat journey, economic and political incentives made them pull in different directions.Chaos, as European aid workers complained, was the predictable result. Next came the European NGOs that had followed the money scattered by Western governments in the pirogues'wake. At the grassroots, again, the strategy was replicated. In a poor neighborhood outside Dakar, a local development association had scribbled migration clandestine at the end of its typed-up list of projects. A Senegalese human rights NGO, once of a radical bent, did sensibilisation with the IOM in Dakar and remote Tambacounda; it had produced T-shirts saying "There is another choice" on the front and "NO to illegal migration" on the back, and its office was plastered with stickers sporting the same message. Theater troupes across Senegal did sensibilisation with cookie-cutter characters explaining the dangers of boat migration. In a Dakar fishing village, a branch of Mother Mercy's collective invoked, in a letter asking for funds to build an ice factory, "our unfailing fight to make the youth of Senegal in general, and of [our neighborhood] in particular, say no to illegal migration." No matter that out of its local five hundred members, only twenty at most had done mbëkë mi.Most of these, after all, fitted the IOM's suitably loose profile of a potential candidate: young, male, and unemployed.

No partners came looking for Mohammadou and his friends. While aid workers such as Rocío insisted-correctly-that former migrants were not necessarily worse off than other youth struggling along in Dakar's poor neighborhoods, the repatriates' sense of entitlement and frustration grew along with the parade of donors, brokers, and visitors. However, their ire was mainly directed at Mother Mercy and other competitors, not at the funding agencies and European politicians. A quiet battle was raging among local associations about who was really fighting clandestine migration. Everyone bickered with everyone, not just in Yongor, but across Senegal's seaside communities. Moctar, the head of the presumably national association of repatriates, was working only for himself rather than for a broader cause, local youth and repatriates said. In Kayar, one angry repatriate leader caught up with me in the back streets of the fish market. A rival association had received €6,500, "and they ate it all," he said while pointing at scrawled funding figures in his notebook. "Some people benefit from this money in the name of the illegal migrants," he said, waving a bunch of papers belonging to his association's members. The papers-presumably certificates from the migrant detention centers in the Canaries-proved they were bona fide clandestins,he insisted. He later turned out never to have made the boat journey.

Transcending this bickering was Mother Mercy, who played the funding game to perfection. As noted by other scholars, her success related to the combination of Western concerns that her collective represented: women's empowerment, development, and illegal migration. But she was no victim of European priorities. She had entered a virtuous circle in which media exposure, political clout, and more funding fed into one another. The women's soap making and handicraft projects found favor with donors, combining as they did female empowerment with a "back to the soil" strategy against migration. "Sometimes misfortune is good; we had never dared to speak out in our communities before," she told me. "It's thanks to migration, to the disappearance of our children, that we have integrated ourselves into male society."

We should perhaps ask, along with the development anthropologist David Mosse, not whether aid projects such as the Spanish migration-and-development drive succeed but how "success" is produced-and what the side effects of such success might be. The sensitization drive, the mothers with their soap bars, and the high-heeled farmhands put success in Senegalese quarters, while diverting activist and "grassroots" attention away from the controversial European patrols and repatriations that Wade's government had approved. The illegality industry also created a role for former and potential migrants, but not as actors, brokers, or beneficiaries. Instead, the repatriates oiled the cogs of the anti-migration machinery with their tragic experiences at sea. To them befell the thankless task of repeating their stories to the visitors-without-funds descending on Yongor-the researchers, fact finders, and journalists.

Migrants as Content Providers

We were sitting in the "office," people eating the peanut stew mafe from a shared platter, when a mobile phone rang. The association's treasurer stopped fiddling with old Nokia SIM cards and took the phone, talking in French, and then handed the phone to Mohammadou, who went outside to continue the conversation. It was a journalist, he explained afterwards. Her reporting team would come on Sunday to discuss a documentary they wanted to film in Yongor.

I left the office with Mohammadou and Ali, walking along the rail tracks that split Yongor in half. Mohammadou was thoughtful, silent. Then he said, "I will ask her, what will we get from participating? All the time, people come here to speak to us about migration, always migration." Ali nodded. "It's tiring . . . we need compensation, or to talk of something else." To him, "the most important thing is what happened after our migration." The debt to relatives for the journey, the loss of jobs and savings, and the fruitless funding battles-not to mention the day-to-day struggles for "migrant" and nonmigrant alike in Senegal's rattled economy-were not foremost in journalists' minds, as Ali and Mohammadou were well aware.

A few hundred meters along the tracks lay the office of Yongor's mayor. He had lost a brother and a cousin to mbëkë mi after paying for their fatal journey and was sympathetic to the repatriates' struggles. "Tell the journalists the truth," he advised Mohammadou as we sat in plush sofas in his reception room. Mohammadou listened and nodded, saying little more. As we walked back, Mohammadou mulled his tactics. "We will say we haven't seen any help from Europe, but without mentioning Mother Mercy," he said. "It's better that way."

The repatriates had already met hundreds of journalists, but little had come of all this attention except broken promises. "In 2007, journalists came here almost every day," said one member of the association. "They come and do their reports; all the time they come, then they just leave and we never hear from them again." Mohammadou used to wonder where his photo had ended up, in how many news reports. "If I go to England and I see my photo on a poster, I ask myself why."

The poster image for boat migration, however, was not Mohammadou or his fellow repatriates; it was Mother Mercy, whose qualities made for perfect feature stories. She was the strong and steadfast mother and also the bereaved, impoverished victim. Such media portrayals pandered to Western stereotypes of the African woman, as one analysis of her collective notes: Mother Mercy here appeared as a "consensual figure arousing the compassion of everyone" in fusing "the charisma of the victim and the activist." And the women played along, singing and showing pictures of their dead sons and husbands during journalists' visits. Some entrepreneurial young repatriates had also found a source of income in chasing contacts for the journalists, offering up smugglers and marabouts, bereaved relatives, and jobless fishermen, according to the needs of the story. Mohammadou and his friends had played this game too, but they were tired. Unlike Mother Mercy, they saw little outcome of the visits.

After the media stampede came the more slow-footed researchers. Many were preparing their postgraduate theses; some worked for NGOs; others might have been undercover police. "I'll be completely honest," a UN official in Dakar told me, relishing his moment. "Around sixty researchers have come here in the past few years to study irregular migration. You'd better think of another topic."

This sudden academic "discovery" followed a familiar trend. Irregular migration, sociologist Alejandro Portes observed already in the 1970s, "is one of those issues in which the interests of scholars and of government agencies converge." Yet while the U.S.-Mexican border had long been a vast field of inquiry, the Euro-African frontline was, until the Ceuta and Melilla tragedies of 2005, virtually unexplored. In the words of one Moroccan academic, irregular migration was an "empty field" on which migration researchers descended in the hope of quick data for articles, theses, and reports. In Senegal after the boat crisis, the pattern was repeated: here was a wide-open research frontier, an academic Klondike where any early studies were bound to attract disproportionate attention from editors, selection committees, and funders, including E.U. research bodies and the ever-present IOM. Predictably, an onward rush of policy-relevant papers proposing piecemeal "solutions" soon followed-but so did a quieter current of in-depth studies exploring the complexities of migratory flows. Yet to the repatriates, sensing the stakes at play, these varied efforts looked remarkably similar: they were all attempts at mining their stories to feed the demands of European funders.

The repatriates had belatedly learned that the clandestine migrant was a valuable piece of merchandise, and they now wanted their slice of the business. Moctar, the repatriate president, said they had decided not to speak about their experiences unless they got something out of it. "For a small sum, I'll give you three or four guys," he told me. "Maybe ten thousand CFA is enough, since you are a research student." This was a discount, he made clear-self-appointed middlemen had been given one hundred thousand CFA or more by journalists keen on stories. While researchers such as I often refused, the journalists kept giving, sometimes in the form of a gift to Mother Mercy's collective, other times as a backhand fee to the fixers.

Except for these one-off payments, the repatriates were unable to monetize their media presence. Their stereotype within the illegality industry was not that of Africans needing empowerment; it was that of wild youth in need of domestication. The only thing they could sell was their story at sea, which made for a perfect piece of journalism-a package of suffering and high drama that worked both as hard news and feature fodder. And this story, as other researchers have also attested, became shrouded in ambivalences and resistance in its telling and retelling.

One day I went with Mohammadou to see Momar, one of the association's spokesmen. He was a dreadlocked member of Baye Fall, the Muslim Mourid devotees famed throughout Senegal for their colorful ragged clothes and itinerant begging on behalf of their marabout. We sat down on a foam mattress in Momar's bare room as he emptied a "gunpowder" tea bag into a metal pot and put it on the coals. I asked if he wanted to speak about his journey. Momar was a kind man who found it hard to say no. "I do it for Mohammadou," he said eventually. "We have a policy not to speak to anyone." Mohammadou reiterated the figure of a thousand journalists and researchers visiting them since their return. Still, they kept yielding to demands for stories.

"It's harder now than before leaving," said Momar, who was a self-employed plumber. "In 2006, I could find clients, but after I left, my clients found other workers. I had to start from scratch again." This lack of funds, the repatriates often said, was another reason no one contemplated departing anymore; in 2006 at least they had some funds to draw upon for the trip.

Then Momar talked of his journey. "Only the brave ones (nit ñu am jóm) left," he said. His pirogue departed on 28 July 2006-everyone remembers the date they set off-and he summed up his ordeal in a few words: "I went on mbëkë mi, I lost all my money, I lost many friends, I returned with nothing, nothing, nothing."

On the seventh day water and food ran out, Momar explained as we sipped our tea. The passengers, desperate, started drinking seawater. Then the fuel tanks dried up, so they cut down the tarp covering the pirogue to make an improvised sail. They ripped chunks of wood off the boat's sides to make a mast and oars and spent hours rowing, twenty men on each side. There were ninety-two onboard, lost on the high seas. Eleven people died.Several among them passed away on Momar's lap.

"The fourteenth day they started dying," added Mohammadou, who had begun filling in Momar on the details. Soon they were bouncing elements of the story off each other, talking of how Momar's pirogue-or was it Mohammadou's?-had been intercepted. It was the Moroccans, not the Spaniards, who finally "came to the coasts of the Canary Islands to take us away." The more they talked, the blurrier the story became. It was a standardized account of their misery, I started to realize, a tale they had repeated so many times they knew it by heart, their individual tragedies melting into one another for the benefit of the visiting interviewers. Whose story was I hearing, and how many had heard it before me?

Repatriates from coastal Senegal, and especially those organized into associations, were in one sense the beneficiaries of the visitors' excessive attentions. Former migrants in impoverished inland regions such as Tambacounda or the remote southern Casamance saw few reporters, researchers, and aid workers. Besides, many deportees in Dakar and other seaside cities steered clear of repatriates' associations and the illegality industry. The reason was simple: they had no wish to revisit their misfortune or relive the shame that so often accompanied it. One such deportee, when I asked him about his harrowing journey, suddenly rose to his feet and started pacing up and down the room. "I've forgotten most of it," he said, glancing towards the door leading down to the car mechanic shop where his uncle had found him work after his deportation. The rescue happened on their ninth day at sea, he finally recalled, a day after the food had run out. "One guy onboard went mad. 'Let me leave!' he screamed. We had to tie him to the boat . . . He was seeing his girlfriend in the waves." Then he stopped pacing and sat down, next to me, squeezed in close as on the boat, holding his head in his hands as the passengers would do at night. For this car mechanic as for others, mbëkë mi was lodged in bodily memory, not spoken about. Soon I thanked him and he headed downstairs, relieved of the duty of retelling.

For Yongor's organized repatriates, however, there was no such relief to be had. They had decided to stop speaking to visitors, Momar said, since so many had come, and because the journalists asked "if you are normal or crazy," questioning their sanity. What most shocked the journalists, Mohammadou said, was the descent from solidarity into chaos on the boat: how "yesterday we ate together, today we throw you into the water. But if you don't, everyone will die onboard." Yet despite their complaints and their policy of silence, the repatriates kept talking to the journalists and researchers. Their stories were, after all, the only product they could offer the illegality industry and their one remaining means of connection with the European world they had once sought to enter.


The French film team arrived in Yongor in early April. I caught up with Mohammadou and his friends at the shore, where they sat atop a beached pirogue, blankly watching the cameraman home in on a woman doing the laundry. "She lost her husband in mbëkë mi," Mohammadou said in his usual dry voice. Down at the beachfront, a pirogue was being prepared for a film trip at sea. The journalists had paid for the petrol, Mohammadou said. They had also paid for a meal of cebujën (rice and fish, Senegal's national dish) for everyone and had promised "something more" too. It was not clear what this was. Money? Contacts? Mohammadou said nothing more.

The conversation drifted on to the topic of funding partners. "You should help us find partners now that you're a member of the association," said Omar, their fast-talking, self-proclaimed spokesman who had suddenly shown up. The French documentary maker, hearing the exchange, came out from under a shaded canopy and joined us on the boat, notepad in hand. "Could you help us find contacts?" they asked her eagerly. "You should prepare a dossier with your projects," she suggested, looking skeptical. "We have done it already!" they insisted. Omar said an E.U. delegation had been there and promised things, but nothing came of it. He picked up his mobile and called the E.U. offices in Dakar, but the delegate was away. Conversation died away, and the repatriates sauntered down to the shoreline while the reporter lingered. "Why are they not leaving anymore?" she asked me, looking out over the waters, past the pirogues towards Gorée Island and the cargo ships. "Do people really know about the economic crisis in Europe?"

Besides their fascination with the tragedies onboard, visitors struggled to comprehend migrants' decision to depart. While academics analyzed the journey as a form of collective risk taking and an identity-forging experience, their journalistic colleagues usually resorted to a quicker, neater explanation: a mix of desperation and ignorance, with Europe pictured as a shimmering El Dorado on the horizon. This vision, shared by politicians and donors, justified the need for sensibilisation on both the risks of the journey and the perils of life in Europe-yet bore little resemblance to how the sea crossing was understood by migrants themselves. The migrants' motto of Barça walla barzakh did conjure an El Dorado, but like the term mbëkë mi it alsorendered the journey as an expected headache. Rather than being ignorant of the risks, migrants embraced it in a quest to affirm their masculine prowess, as other ethnographers have noted. In mbëkë mi, Lebou fishermen out of work had suddenly found themselves as the protagonists in a national drama: the heroic seeking of European shores in defiance of the Senegalese and Spanish governments.

Now, in the aftermath of their equally spectacular failure, ambivalence suffused the repatriates' relationship with the foreign visitors. They often evaded the questions thrown at them and at times came up with fake answers, but they still replied. Maybe this time, someone would listen. Maybe for once, the reporters could put them in touch with a partner. Mohammadou kept finding excuses for talking. "This is the last time," he said, or he got a business card out to show me that the reporter was, for once, worth the effort: "He is from France 3!" They always hoped, against experience, that this time would be different. With the French television team, they would yet again be sorely disappointed.


Autumn had come. I was back in Dakar, and Mohammadou met me as usual at the highway. On the corner someone had lined up stereos and radios, stacked a plastic plate with detergent bottles, and heaped old shoes onto a blanket. "It's the modou-modou who have brought it here," Mohammadou said as we made our way into the neighborhood. It was the time of tabaski, the Muslim festival Eid al-Adha, when many migrants came back to visit their families.

Outside the women's collective a shack had been erected, its top adorned with the now-familiar logos of AECID and Spanish NGOs. Inside sat a bored-looking woman in a blue dress, the shelves around her stacked with handmade soap, African dolls, and assorted souvenirs. "They do that every year," explained Mohammadou, "to sell to the visitors. But this year, no one is coming." The largesse was moving elsewhere.

Mohammadou nevertheless had some good news to share. The association had joined in the preparations for the World Social Forum, the large annual gathering of activists, NGOs, and politicians for an alternative globalization. The turn had now come to West Africa to host this international event, and Dakar had been chosen as the venue. Mohammadou's association would, in part thanks to my contact with the forum, take part. "We had no idea there was a forum happening in Dakar," he told visitors later on. "A social forum here in Senegal without the immigrants, it's nothing at all."

Retreating from our usual shaded courtyard to watch a Chelsea football game, Mohammadou revealed he had recently hosted another team of reporters, who had come via the forum. "Next time I don't want to do it," he said. "I'll tell the forum that." The association and elders from Yongor had been invited to the prelaunch of the forum, traveling there in buses and taxis as a real delegation. "We won't ask for money at the forum, we'll go there to find contacts," Mohammadou said. "It's like with you. Do you remember the day I came looking for you at Mother Mercy's place? And see, now you bring cigarettes!" The delivery was deadpan as usual, but there was a new humor and bounce in his voice. Maybe things were soon to change.

As we walked back to the main road across the rail tracks, Mohammadou said they had still not heard back from the French reporters. One of his friends chipped in, saying his sister had seen them on TV in Tunisia. "If we don't see a result everyone will think that we have got something out of it!" another repatriate added. We said good-bye at the main road, where trucks roared out of Dakar and Senegal's police went past on their nightly anti-migration patrols.

As anthropologists and other chroniclers of tragedies have noted, the telling of traumatic stories is often marred by silences and resistances. Survivors of conflict and disaster reel as visitors gain "fame from writing, filming, or reporting about us," in the words of one writer on the Bosnia war. Unlike in the aftermath of conflict, however, the boat tragedy did not even raise the hope of bringing a perpetrator to account. There was no one to blame but the Atlantic waves, the "unscrupulous smugglers," and the repatriates themselves. With no result to show for their labors-not even a copy of the images, books, or films extracted from their accounts-the repatriates' retellings of their tragedies only mired them further in illegality, fueling resentment and distrust of those who ate from migration.

Repatriation and the Economics of Affliction

In February 2011 the World Social Forum descended on Dakar. The venue, Université Cheikh Anta Diop, had been invaded by cosmopolitan altermondialistes, Native American delegations, Moroccan nationalists, curious Dakarois students, and an ever-growing crowd of vendors flogging straw hats, beads, and postcards along the leafy roads of the campus. Amid the trinket stands and the swelling crowds, a theater piece was taking place. A quick glance at the props spread out on the pavement-a fishing net, planks depicting a boat-gave it away as sensibilisation on illegal migration; so did the wail of the female protagonist. As her sobs subsided, her male coprotagonist spoke, arguing forcefully against departure: to leave for Europe "without mastering the language, without profession" did not make sense, he admonished his audience. The play was done in French instead of Wolof for the benefit of the foreign visitors, explained an Italian worker from the NGO funding the show. The actors already had multilingual experience: besides performing for candidates for illegal migration, they also did sensitization shows for tourists whose "solidarity trips" financed the campaigns. "That way, the tourists know where their money's going."

Elsewhere on campus, the venerable Institut Fondamental d'Afrique Noire (IFAN) was to host the migration and diaspora section of the weeklong gathering. But nothing was going according to plan. Wade's government, suddenly unhappy with forum radicalism, had deposed the university's director, and the new one withdrew his support from the event. The halls of IFAN were closed, meetings got canceled, chaos reigned on campus.

Among the presenters was Yongor's repatriate association. The repatriates had lost their hall in the chaos and did not know where to go. I tagged along, as did two research colleagues. Eventually we found an empty lecture hall. There was no one in the gloomy science classroom, only Mohammadou, two of his fellow repatriates, and us. A third, rival collective of "families affected by illegal migration" from Yongor had also made it there in the form of their spokesman, Alioune, and three women dressed in their finery. They had broken with Mother Mercy because of anger over funding and were still hoping against hope for news of their disappeared relatives. Like Mother Mercy, whom we had spotted earlier mingling in the migration and diaspora grounds, they also sought potential partners.

The room was oppressively hot in the late afternoon. We waited: maybe more people would arrive. Mohammadou wavered, not sure whether to go ahead. They had talked about this moment for months. Then a French woman in her fifties entered and sat down. Mohammadou decided to begin.

"I know very well that the people didn't want to have a conference about illegal migration, because they know that if I speak, they will know the reality of illegal migration." Mohammadou, resting on a school bench at the top of the room, cap on head, spoke in a deep voice that receded into a mumble. "There are people who earn a lot of money from illegal migration, but since 2006, the young repatriates haven't received anything from illegal migration." He found the French woman's eyes and held them as he told his own story of fourteen days at sea, nearly a hundred people packed together. "There are mothers here who have lost their sons while others say they have lost relatives, and go earn money in Europe." He fixed his gaze on the woman as he talked in a calm, steady tone about the lost lives. The dirty fans did not whirr, dust stuck to the walls, and sweat to our bodies. "Who is responsible, the European Union? Who?" Someone swallowed. Outside the closed door I heard the shuffle of feet, a reminder that soon this meeting would end and we could go back out to mingle among the careless students. "Here they have hidden everything, they have hidden everything, because people don't want to understand the reality." Still Mohammadou held the French woman's eyes. "They don't give any resources for keeping the youth in place," he said. I averted my gaze, instead scanning the walls where grimy posters hung depicting uranium chain reactions. "I'm not the association," he continued, gesturing to his fellow repatriates. "The association needs assistance . . . You have to go speak in Spain, in Italy, because we don't have the means to go there." He mentioned the journalists who had come, the French reporter team from last spring, people calling him to say they had seen him on television, books he had helped Europeans write. "But the money from that, where do they put it?" Two of the mothers of Yongor were slouching over their desks, slipping into an afternoon stupor in the airless hall. "It's finished, talking about illegal migration. . . . You have to help the youth and the mothers." A soft, short applause ensued, followed by a sad silence.

Then Alioune and the mothers talked of their tragedy under the pale lights of the hall. "They are eighty-six families who really want to talk," said Alioune, also addressing the French woman. As he handed out his business cards, she finally saw her chance and escaped from the room.


Amid their fruitless hunt for partners, the repatriates had been put to work in three ways in the illegality industry: as human deterrents, as commodities to be bartered by NGOs and authorities, and as an alluring presence ripe for journalistic or academic portrayal. The illegality industry was not a smooth operation forged by policy makers and politicians in their European offices, however. Instead it mutated and grew increasingly absurd as Spanish (and Senegalese) needs for depoliticizing controversial border operations co-opted development aid from above-a process that was, in turn, co-opted from below. While Mother Mercy was an expert at this snagging and snaring of the funders, the repatriates also tried their best. Here, the voyeurism inherent in clandestine migration-a veiled presence to be discovered by police, journalists, or potential partners-spurred new and shifting modes of self-presentation. Sometimes repatriates decided to render themselves visible as illegal migrants, much as they would tear off their invisibility amulets, or gris-gris, on the open sea once all hope was gone and they waited for a miraculous rescue. They did so when calling upon the Senegalese state to do justice to the repatriates, when selling their story to journalists and researchers, or when presenting themselves as pacifiers of candidates for illegal migration to Western funders. In the process, states, NGOs, and repatriates all conspired in what, following philosopher Ian Hacking, can be called the "making up" of the illegal migrant.

But what type of migrant was being made up? As critical migration scholars have suggested, the global deportation regime allocates individuals to their designated slots across the world, maintaining the fiction of place-bound, discrete belonging. It was such a "territorial solution" that Spain had tried to achieve in Senegal. A brief crack had opened in the armor of the West, but by 2010 order had been reestablished. The gate to Europe had slammed shut. The wild men who once steered towards European shores were back where they belonged, immobilized and resentful in their homeland.

Deportation had at first made the repatriates into tragic heroes. The ethnographer Caroline Melly, commenting on tales of "missing men" during Senegal's boat craze, says, "It was through repetition and reiteration of tales of failed migration attempts that men became spectacularly present as national adventurers, risk-taking entrepreneurs, and devoted family men who were willing to sacrifice themselves for others." Yet their return had entangled the repatriates in a battle over funds and dignity, from which they emerged as diminished figures. As they were left to scramble for the spoils of the illegality industry, the imaginary of their one-time migrations mutated. No longer simply the stuff of heroic tales, mbëkë mi increasingly turned into a stigma. Illegal migration, prevented in sensitization campaigns and paraded by repatriates' morose and idle bodies, came to resemble less a sign of bravado and sacrifice than a disease-like affliction.

This served the authorities well, but Mohammadou and his friends were nonetheless no pawns bartered between NGOs and "community leaders," politicians and police, journalists and anthropologists.In their tragic attempts to reach the Canaries, they had thrown a line and hook across the waters to Europe, establishing a direct connection where before there was none. Their journeys not only created relations between Spanish and African politicians, journalists and NGOs, but also entitled the migrants to ask the Europeans for funds, reparations, and recognition. By 2010, most of Yongor's former migrants were firmly ensconced at home, with little thought of leaving again because of the patrols, the poverty, and the tragedy they had faced. In their never-ending attempts to find partners, they nevertheless tried to convert their boat ordeal into political and economic capital. When this failed, only a wounded, resentful pride remained.

Down at the beach, looking out over the milky waters towards the Guardia Civil boat, Mohammadou fixed his eyes on me. "No one can stop us," he said. "We are Africans." To prove his point he unbuttoned his shirt to show a snake-like leathery amulet wrapped around his stomach. The gris-gris would protect him if he were ever to leave again. It would make him invisible to the prying eyes of Senegalese police and the Spanish coast guards, the radars, and the infrared cameras crisscrossing the wild waves all the way to the Canary Islands. There were new, stronger motors on the market, sixty-horsepower Yamahas that would take them there even faster than in 2006. "We have no fear," Mohammadou said. "We have no fear of the planes, we have no fear of the boats, we have no fear of the crisis."

Mohammadou and his fellow former migrants were not just dragged into the measly trickle-down world of Dakar's aid industry. They would also become capital in a high-stakes game of bordering Europe, whose webs of control were every bit as invisible and magical as those of Mohammadou's gris-gris. These invisible threads connected Mohammadou's coastline, his one-time destination in the Canaries, and European policing headquarters in a dispersed border regime of unprecedented proportions. This regime, and its extraction of the very "risk" once embraced by the repatriates, is the subject of the next chapter.