Migration reflections with Africa at the centre: an interview with Badara Ndiaye

The MMC West Africa sat down with Badara Ndiaye, the Director of DIADEM (Diaspora Development Education Migration) and the West African platform of the civil society organization MIGRAFRIQUE, to seek his perspective on migration in Senegal both today and historically; the role (West) African civil society can and should play in terms of advocating for and protecting the migration space and the rights of migrants; the position and future orientation of African actors when it comes to migration; and effects of the pandemic on migration.

Badara Ndiaye is Director of the association DIADEM (Diaspora Development Education Migration) and the West African Platform of the civil society organization MIGRAFRIQUE. DIADEM is a Senegalese NGO which works to uphold the rights of migrants and the principle of free movement, encourage reflection on migration in Africa in general and West Africa in particular, and promote solidarity around migration at the local, regional and international level. His thematic focus is mobility and development in relation to protection and labour migration. Before taking up his current role he worked for the ECOWAS Commission as the Regional Technical Advisor of the Intra ACP Facility for Migration. Previously, he worked with the International Labour Office (ILO) on migration governance in Senegal and for the NGO Enda Third World.


Can you start by telling us a little bit about Senegal’s migration history, and what migration has meant for the country?

Generally speaking, throughout the history of our country, migration issues have arisen not as a problem but as a means of increasing Senegal’s openness to the rest of the world – as a way for Senegalese citizens to explore other horizons. For migrants and their families who stayed behind, migration is also a way to face the difficulties felt at home; a different way of being, a way to have financial resources, income and new skills.  But also, and this is something that I think is very important, it is a way to have new knowledge, because migration is both what you can obtain in terms of economic wealth and what you get in terms of social and economic development.

In the sixties we began to see the first irregular migration by boat from Dakar to Marseille. This was in the aftermath of the Second World War and the French economy was in need of manpower. Smugglers in Senegal had set up a well-oiled system which enabled hundreds of people from rural and urban areas to travel. They referred to this in Wolof as damaye lakk gaal gui which translates to “I’m going to burn the boat,” a way of saying that one was leaving irregularly for France, which was known as kaaw bi (“the cellar”) in reference to the Paris metro. It is also important to underline that France facilitated higher education for Senegalese students.

A crucial turning point for Senegalese migration took place in the seventies and eighties because that’s when most rural people started to see the impact of drought-related difficulties on agriculture, leading to lower incomes, destabilized families, difficulties in being able to provide for themselves.

And it was at this point that there were internal movements and flows towards Dakar and departures to countries such as Spain, Italy, and the United States, particularly Spain and Italy, where the agricultural sector and cooperatives faced labour demands.

At the same time, Senegalese migrants who left for other countries in Africa also contributed to an increase in wealth by going to Gabon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Congo Brazzaville, the former Congo Kinshasa (DRC), Namibia, Zambia, Morocco, Benin etc.  Senegalese migrants were involved in trade, mining, development of handicrafts (Senegalese have important skills in the fields of sewing, woodwork and jewelry making). Senegalese migrated around the whole perimeter of West and Central Africa, and the investments of these migrants facilitated the development of industries and urbanization in Senegal.

What role has the Senegalese government played in terms of migration of its citizens?

The reality of having Senegalese citizens who move around and settle in many parts of Africa, Europe, the United States and now in other countries has led the State to design cooperation frameworks aiming at offering Senegalese migrants different opportunities related to their stay in these countries.

It was in the period of the seventies and eighties when the destinations for Senegalese migrants diversified and the Senegalese authorities accompanied these migration processes by starting to develop bilateral agreements with destination countries.  In addition to the free movement protocols of the ECOWAS space from 1979, bilateral agreements were signed with African countries such as Gabon, DRC, Congo, Morocco, Mali etc.  There were also various agreements with European countries, dealing with issues related to social protection, visas, residence, family reunification etc.

For me, there were two movements that met: first, the desire and the commitment of the population to go and, through work and entrepreneurship, explore the African space and other countries such as Italy, Spain, France and the US; second, as the State recognized the individual will to migrate, it accompanied this by formulating agreements with receiving countries.

When you have that will to migrate, it means that the State cannot ignore it, and needs to consider issues such as financial transfers, skills and capacity building, law, protection, security etc. 

This is why there have been real efforts by the State to develop accords and cooperation frameworks.  But at the same time, there are many aspects where it is important to make revisions and improvements to regulate and create safeguards for labor migration, which is a crucial issue for Africa.

What does the expression Barça wala Baarsax[1] mean to you and what does it tell us about the broader migration context in Senegal?

For me, Barça wala Baarsax is a concept that was defined by young people who were looking to the city of Barcelona (Barça) as a means to meet their needs but also as a source of hope.  In my opinion, they didn’t necessarily know Barcelona, they knew the football team, and this led them to choose Barcelona and Spain more broadly as their reference – as a destination to strive for.  However, if you look at the map, Barcelona is still somewhat far away, so for many of them, the actual destination became the Canary Islands, or Ceuta and Melilla.

The other aspect is Baarsax, which in the Wolof milieu, particularly in the Senegalese tradition, is the afterlife.  This could be construed as suicide, and has been interpreted in this manner, but in my opinion it isn’t suicide that is intended by these young people, but rather another way of constructing their lives and building their relationship to globalization.  This is different from the form of globalization in which they were incorporated in Senegal, with difficulties linked to employment, to training, but also, and this is something very important, difficulty in having a plurality of opportunities that allow them to express themselves, including in sport, in art etc.

Baarsax is really a way of dying in order to live differently – to kill a certain way of being seen and being considered, of being linked to their society and to the world. 

They weren’t trying to die, but rather to have a dignified life, one of expression, power, knowledge and know-how, international connection, the right to be mobile, the right to be considered.

A friend of mine once said that Barça wala Baarsax was a poetic term, but it is a tragic poetry.

What would be your recommendations for effectively harnessing civil society perspectives, expertise and action on migration?

In the middle of the 2000s (2003-2007) the European Union greatly feared an “invasion,” which really wasn’t an “invasion,” but rather people coming in dugout canoes.  At that time many organizations were created just to raise funds and carry out some migration-related activities, but today there is a big change, which is that migration issues are also and above all issues of global geopolitics.

African civil society actors in particular need to learn that to be sustainable as a civil society we can no longer exist in the same way as we did in the 2000s. We must be able to formulate a political vision of human mobility and have clear objectives.

The involvement of civil society more broadly with migration issues happened in a framework of co-development, but there was a Euro-centric orientation; we worked a lot on Europe and we didn’t develop the dimension of intra-African migration issues very much. I think that, if you like, it is due to the fact that politically African civil society groups were not very well structured, and we lacked elements to be more unified and share our views.  But there was another point, which was that most of the funding we had and the partnerships we had built were Europe-Africa partnerships. Partners and the organizations have followed the direction of the funding and not the direction of migration dynamics, and this is a big weakness. This is what seems to me to have been a challenge that we have started to rectify over the last five years.

We will never neglect what is happening in Europe, in the United States and elsewhere, but we believe that it is time to support, to re-invigorate reflection, action and advocacy within West Africa, within Africa. 

Another thing that is very important is a transformation of scale.  While it is necessary to have local and national actions, it is increasingly crucial to have sub-regional actions because the scale of transformation of human relations and the definition of policies is occurring at the sub-regional level and beyond.   If we do not build ourselves at least to the sub-regional and then pan-African levels, we will not be able to influence States, nor will we be able to influence cooperation between our countries, the European Union and other destination countries.

But what is much more dangerous is that the various civil society organizations are in danger of disappearing. Already there are more and more financial resources that unfortunately small organizations will not be able to obtain because they don’t have the vision and they don’t have the capacity. We see that the major organizations with the capacity and vision are the civil society organizations in Europe.  Thus, our West African organizations need to systematically strengthen their capacity to develop, formulate and act on the ground.

For the first time West African civil society has the opportunity to determine its own future. Either it is able to build its capacity, on its own or through collaboration with others, or it risks being a subcontractor of European NGOs, and we are already seeing this.

You have spoken about the need for action not just at the sub-regional level, but also at the pan-African level; tell us more about what this should entail.

We need to call on the African Union to make a real change in direction, to forge an intra-African migration policy aimed at the continent and formulated through regional consultative processes, which gives the African Union greater intra-African resonance.

We must substantially change the orientation we have, which is based on looking at what is happening in Europe much more than what is happening in Africa.  We cannot be the African Union and look at what is happening in Libya without being able to take strong political decisions.

This is unacceptable. People who die in Libya, who die in the desert, need more than political declarations by states, but rather commitments to stop what is happening in Libya.

Additionally, we must have African states abolish visas within the continent; for me this is something crucial for the development of countries on the African continent.  You shouldn’t pay more for a visa to enter another African country than you do for a Schengen visa.  If we are ever to have a continental free trade zone and African unity, we need people to be able to circulate freely across all of Africa as well.

The African Union is not an operational actor, it is a political actor, but it needs to have local and technical interlocutors from civil society. When I say civil society, I include associations, the private sector, the academic sector, youth associations, women’s associations, think-tanks, professional organizations, even members of the diaspora who are ready to participate in this collective reflection.

Therefore we call on the African Union to open up to this and to provide greater support and backing to organizations (such as ECOWAS, West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU), Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC), so that the African civil society and the African Union can give much stronger, more sustainable responses, and so that we can also contribute to strengthening the protection of people on the move.

Finally, how do you think the Covid-19 pandemic could affect migration in the region, either in the short or longer term?

For me, the context of Covid gives us an extraordinary opportunity, and an obligation, to reflect on African dynamics, on the stakes of migration and development in Africa, from African positions, and with civil society actors playing a leading role in this reflection.

The pandemic is demonstrating to us the importance of solidarity and cross-border cooperation. 

After all, no country can say it is finished with Covid while its neighbors are still affected. We can think, for instance, of developing health infrastructures that are no longer conceived of as purely national, but which could allow several countries to pool resources, for instance through the construction of a hospital in a border area between two or more countries. This goes hand in hand with greater reliance on local production capacities; for instance, if Senegal is able to make 1 million, 2 million chloroquine tablets a day, it can supply its own needs and the needs of its neighbors.

The pandemic is spurring inventiveness and innovation, and it can spur us to ask these questions about what we are capable of producing, and about how to strengthen the solidarity between ourselves. The more we develop this cross-border cooperation which allows us to respond effectively in a moment such as the current pandemic, the greater our ability to ensure the protection and opportunity of people crossing borders during more normal times.

So, further developing cross-border cooperation is crucial, but we also need to change the way the debate in West Africa is shaped today. When in the past we have spoken of “migration and development,” it is the investments of migrants we are talking about, particularly those who are overseas. Covid has made the situation of many West African migrants in Europe more precarious, especially for the many who are undocumented and who have lost the informal work that used to give them a livelihood.  This of course has also had an impact on their families and loved ones back at home, many of whom are dependent on these remittances.

We need to ask what the long-term effects of the pandemic will be on remittances from Europe, as well as on xenophobia in an environment in which many Europeans themselves have been made more vulnerable.  While we should not discount those remittances, we also can be thinking about how to place greater emphasis on intra-African movement and cooperation. Today, with Covid, “migration and development” should be re-conceived as “migration and the reversal of dependency trends.”

Covid 19 can be an opportunity and a turning point, a call to renew strategic and operational thinking on migration issues. Our objective is that Africa must be the object, subject and center of its own reflection on the reorganization of mobilities in relation to development issues.


[1] This phrase in Senegal’s most widely spoken language, Wolof, roughly translates to “Barcelona or bust,” and is essentially understood to mean, ‘make it to Barcelona or die trying.’ In a society in which young men in particular may face substantial pressure to migrate, this phrase has become synonymous with the phenomenon of irregular migration, particularly in small boats, towards Europe.