As people fleeing their homelands braved the risk of drowning to sail north toward Europe this year, Ibrahima Sarr crossed the Mediterranean in the other direction.
He came home to Senegal, after almost a decade hawking counterfeit Louis Vuitton handbags on Spain’s southern beaches, to fulfill his dream of starting a business.
Instead of made-in-China fashions, Sarr now sells rice, onions, potatoes and cooking oil in his neon-lit grocery store at the bustling Keur Mbaye Fall market in an eastern suburb of the capital, Dakar. As he spoke to a reporter, at least six female customers, some carrying babies on their backs, dropped in to shop or inquire about prices.
“In Africa, a son who migrates is the family’s dream come true; they think it’s the end of their problems,” said Sarr as he flicked through the channels of a flat-screen TV. “It takes courage and ambition to return.”
Sarr, 40, is the lesser-seen face of an influx of migrants from African coasts to Europe, this year in greater numbers and taking greater risks, in a crisis that has engulfed the European Union. The plight of refugees — more than 2,000 have died in the Mediterranean this year — induced French Prime Minister Manuel Valls to say Monday that Europe needed fair procedures for handling asylum-seekers and should deter those coming for economic reasons.
Sarr was among those driven by aspiration, not desperation. Seen from Senegal, economic migrants enrich their families — and countries — when they send money home or return and invest. He replaced the floor tiles and mounted ventilators to the ceiling to renovate the store, and has recruited a younger brother to assist behind the counter. Another migrant, Ndiasse Dieng, came back from Italy and opened a bakery in 2007 that employs six people and several distributors in the city of Thies. Next: a pastry shop and an onion farm.
“Migration is fundamental to the development of the country,” said Jo-Lind Roberts, head of the International Organization for Migration’s Senegal office. “The idea is still very present that migration to Europe is the only way to support the family.”
Among the West Africans who crossed by boat to Italian shores this year, the highest number comes from Senegal, according to the IOM. Migration has fueled Senegal’s economy for decades, as far back as French colonial rule.
The money being wired home by as many as 4 million Senegalese abroad has helped push families into the middle class — remittances exceed aid or direct foreign investment. Official remittances more than doubled from $633 million a decade ago to reach $1.4 billion last year, or 12 percent of gross domestic product. The real amount, including envelopes stuffed with money that are carried back through a network of acquaintances, is probably twice that, or close to $3 billion, according to the government.
Across sub-Saharan Africa, remittances sent home climbed to an estimated $33 billion last year, according to the World Bank. Those funds are crucial to many of the region’s economies, including in Gambia, Liberia, Somalia, and Nigeria.
Migration is especially vital for Senegal because it lacks abundant natural resources to sustain its population of about 14 million. Its main export commodity: unemployed young men. It also relies on fishing, farming, and tourism for foreign currency.
The nation’s economic growth, forecast at 5.4 percent this year, may even trigger the decision to leave for some, as modern symbols of middle-class wealth such as iPhones and Samsung tablets spread to the most remote corners of the country.
At the same time, a “substantial flow” of workers heads home after a few years in Europe, especially when their prospects are good, according to a survey from the U.K.-based Migration Between Africa and Europe research program. A hard life in Europe and separation from family also bring migrants back.
Three weeks after his wife gave birth to twin girls in 2006, Mouhamadou Sall, a tailor with little formal education, boarded a fishing boat and joined a wave of people heading to the Canary Islands. After spending four weeks in detention, he was flown to Spain on a temporary visa. He ended up staying seven years, doing jobs including handbag hawker and lettuce packer, while sending a monthly 200 euros ($224) to his wife.
In 2013, Sall scraped his savings together and bought three professional sewing machines. “I knew my daughters only from Skype,” he said, speaking Wolof through a translator, as he sat in his workshop in Hann Bel-Air, a poor Dakar neighborhood with narrow sand paths for streets.
Sall considers himself fortunate. He managed to return with valuable machines he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to buy had he stayed in Senegal. He grabs a pile of dresses he’s made for his customers to make the point.
“A lot of men in this neighorhood are unemployed,” he said. “I make enough money to support my family, and I sleep better because I’m home.”
The beneficiaries of migrants’ money are usually wives and mothers, who buy food and pay school fees and doctors’ bills, according to the Population Reference Bureau. Migrants also buy land and build houses, even if it’s one level at a time, and help construct mosques and clinics in their hometowns, according to Pape Diop, head of the department of Senegalese Abroad within the Foreign Affairs ministry.
“Remittances are a godsend for us, but we want migrants to increase investment in agriculture, fishing, and cattle-raising, which generates more revenue than building mosques,” Diop said in Dakar. “We’re also encouraging highly qualified Senegalese abroad to come back and share their expertise.”
The government has several loan programs for potential returnees, and in June it devised a new strategy to make better use of the money and skills from Senegalese abroad, Diop said.
Among those who obtained a government-backed loan to start a business was Dieng, 45, who opened a bakery in 2007 with second-hand ovens shipped from Italy. He paid for them with money saved from the between 1,000 and 1,200 euros a month he earned running a market stall in Genoa. Settling permanently in Italy was out of the question, he said, sitting on a red velvet sofa in his villa with tiled exterior walls.
Just as his father was angry when Dieng quit university and left for Europe, Dieng said he doesn’t want his children to leave for work in other countries.
“As a kid, I sat in a classroom with more than 50 children, while they go to private schools with fewer than 25 students per class,” he said. “They don’t even have to walk; they are chauffeured to school. I struggled so they can have a better life. Here, in Senegal.”