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Senegal: Blocking the West African Migration Route

Migrants on a boat headed to the Canary Islands, (source:
Migrants on a boat headed to the Canary Islands, (source:

The West African migration route leading to Spain’s Canary Islands saw a major spike in traffic in 2023, increasing by 161 percent compared to 2022, according to the European Union border agency, Frontex. As most of these crossings originate in Senegal and involve mainly young migrants, many under the age of 18, the country’s efforts to shut down this route have been the focus of much attention, domestically and internationally.   

During Senegal’s recent presidential election campaign, which resulted in the election of Bassirou Diomaye Faye on 24 March 2024, migration was a key topic. The newly elected president took office amid increasing pressure from the public to protect the rising numbers of Senegalese embarking on the dangerous route towards the Spanish archipelago, which according to the IOM resulted in 959 confirmed deaths in 2023.

At the same time, the country is under pressure from the EU to stop transit migrants crossing Senegal. However, Senegal’s recent efforts to “fight clandestine emigration” have resulted in heightened border controls and increased criticism about the treatment of foreigners in the country. In July 2023, Senegal introduced a migration action plan to prevent migrants from leaving the country by tightening border policing and tackling smuggling networks.

Europe’s Frontex, which has “liaison officers” deployed in Senegal as well as in neighbouring Mauritania and the Gambia, has long proposed boosting its role in Senegal in support of interdiction efforts and other migration control programs. Observers have also pointed to the growing use of EU-funded invasive surveillance technologies, which may violate migrants’ fundamental human rights, while facilitating arbitrary detention and deportation operations.

Increasing arrests and detention

In autumn 2023, the Senegalese minister of fishing and maritime economy announced the arrest of over 1,500 migrants on board 19 shipping vessels and “the detention of more than 100 potential candidates for clandestine immigration in the cities of Dakar, Saly, and Saint-Louis.” However, the growing criminalisation of outward migration has neither discouraged nor halted the sea crossings but rather increased the risks for those on the move. Reports have highlighted that the lack of employment prospects remains a major drive for migration, and that the government should address youth unemployment, while also respecting people’s rights to migrate. The most affected include the younger population and people whose primary source of livelihood is fishing, who have been badly impacted by unfavourable fishing rights deals with the EU.

In addition to the rise in arrests in Senegal, the increasing influx of migrants reaching the Canary Islands exposes more individuals to the risk of detention. Reportedly, a Senegalese minor accused of piloting a migrant boat, thus facilitating irregular immigration, has been held in an adult prison in Gran Canaria since December 2023. Given the uncertainty about the exact age of the possible minor, the UN has requested that Spain ensure his transfer to a juvenile detention centre instead, to avoid breaching his rights under the International Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In recent years, representatives of various NGOs, including Save the Children, have raised concerns about the difficulties in meeting the needs of rising numbers of unaccompanied children reaching the Spanish islands.

Tightening border controls and immigration detention in Senegal

Senegal is a major departure point not only for Senegalese migrants but also Gambians and Malians. While Senegalese immigration authorities received funding from the EU to intensify surveillance of the country’s coastline and internal borders, observers have highlighted that, in an effort to curb African migration, “EU migration policies threaten to erode the EU’s very foundation—namely, its professed respect for fundamental human rights, both within and outside of Europe.” Europe’s border control externalisation contributes to pushing migrants to undertake more dangerous routes, leading to increasing deaths and disappearances, while failing to slow arrivals to the EU.

Concerns have been raised about the impact that the use and misuse of invasive surveillance technology—such as biometric fingerprinting, facial recognition, drones and much more—can have on the country well beyond its migration management purposes. Reportedly, a substantial lack of human rights impact assessments and safeguards to ensure that the technology and policing strategies aren’t used improperly, risks supplying authoritarian governments with repressive tools. Amnesty International noted that “if the police have this technology at their disposal to track migrants, there is nothing to ensure it won’t be used to target others, such as civil society or political actors.” Reports confirm that EU-funded police special units, who were trained to tackle cross-border crimes, have been used instead to violently repress pro-democracy protests and peaceful demonstrations in Senegal.

Observers argue that EU influence on Senegal’s migration governance has led the country “to reform its institutions and legal frameworks along European lines,” criminalising regional mobility and facilitating deportations.  

The Global Detention Project has previously highlighted that such changes in Senegalese legislation, as well as agreements with European countries, have resulted in increasing numbers of migration detainees in Senegal. However, based on available information, Senegal does not appear to operate a dedicated immigration detention facility, which means immigration detainees are held in prisons or police stations.

In a 2019 report on Senegal, the UN Human Rights Committee was already pointing to concerns about Senegal’s treatment of migrants and asylum seekers, noting in particular: the criminalisation of irregular migration under Article 11 of the Act on conditions of admission, stay and establishment of foreigners in Senegal; the absence of accurate, detailed information regarding migrant workers and members of their families in detention; that migrant workers in an irregular situation are placed in detention with ordinary prisoners and that children are not separated from adults; the poor conditions of detention due to ageing infrastructure and prison overcrowding; reports that the administrative detention of foreigners awaiting deportation can be extended indefinitely, in police stations, as a result of administrative or logistical problems.

Africa Arbitrary detention Deportation European Union Frontex Human Rights Refugees and Asylum Seekers Senegal