After Watching 10 Migrants Die at Sea, He Now Pleads: ‘Stay’

Crowded together with 90 others on a rickety fishing vessel bound for Spain, Moustapha Diouf watched 10 of them die, one by one, from heat and exhaustion.

Worried about health risks posed by the corpses, Mr. Diouf had to throw the bodies overboard. Five were friends.

It was in that macabre moment 17 years ago, Mr. Diouf said, that he vowed to do everything in his power to stop others from making the choice he had and enduring the same fate: He would make it his mission to dissuade his fellow Senegalese from trying to reach Europe and drowning or dying in myriad other ways on the perilous journey.

“If we don’t do anything, we become accomplices in their deaths,” said Mr. Diouf, 54, sitting in a dusty office of the nonprofit he co-founded, empty but for one desk and a couple of chairs. “I will fight every day to stop young people from leaving.”

In 2006, the boat Mr. Diouf boarded with his friends was one of the first of many pirogues, as the craft are known, that departed that year from the coastal villages of Senegal in the direction of the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago 60 miles off the Moroccan coast.

With their traditional way of fishing no match for the industrial trawlers from China, Europe and Russia that had begun combing the sea around them, Mr. Diouf and his fellow villagers could no longer support their families. Migrating, they believed, was their best choice.

Over the course of just one year, almost 32,000 migrants, most of them West Africans, reached the Canary Islands through this irregular route.

Thousands of others died or disappeared. The route was so treacherous that the motto of those who braved it was “Barsa wala Barsakh,” or “Barcelona or die” in Wolof, one of Senegal’s national languages. Yet, it was so popular that locals started referring to places like Thiaroye-sur-Mer, Mr. Diouf’s village in the suburbs of Dakar, as “international airports.”

Mr. Diouf was among the lucky ones: He made it to the Canary Islands alive. But the whole experience was dreadful, he said. He was imprisoned and deported to Senegal. Upon his return, together with two other repatriates, he set up his nonprofit, known as AJRAP, or the Association of Young Repatriates, whose mission is persuading Senegal’s youth to stay.

In his quest, Mr. Diouf has sought the help of some high-profile allies: He wrote a letter to the country’s president, Macky Sall, but never got an answer. He met with the mayor of Dakar, the capital. He even tried to go to Brussels to speak with the authorities of the European Union, but was denied a visa.

But that has not held him back.

When it has the funds, AJRAP organizes vocational training in baking, poultry breeding, electricity and entrepreneurship, to provide alternatives to embarking on a pirogue. Mr. Diouf also speaks to young people in local schools to rectify the overly rosy picture of Europe often painted by those who made it there.

But he is painfully aware of his limitations. He does not have the capacity to offer anyone a job, and most choose to migrate anyway.

“We know that the European Union sent funds to Senegal to create jobs,” he said with quiet resignation in his voice. “But we have not seen any of this money.”

After the initial peak of 2006-2007, the number of people trying to cross the Atlantic Ocean decreased in the following years. But recently, the route has seen a resurgence in popularity, especially among young people struggling to find jobs, and fishermen affected by their ever-shrinking catch.

So far this year, over 35,000 migrants have arrived in the Canary Islands, the Spanish authorities said, exceeding the 2006 peak. Most of them were from West Africa.

Communities like Thiaroye-sur-Mer, where fishing is the traditional source of livelihood, have been among the most depleted by emigration and the most harmed by its dangers. According to numbers gathered by Mr. Diouf’s nonprofit, since 2006, 358 village residents died at sea trying to reach Europe. There were years when local football tournaments had to be canceled, because there were not enough players.

Last month, Mr. Sall, the president, announced “emergency measures” to “neutralize the departure of migrants.”

Mr. Diouf said that the government did not offer any support for young people in his village and that the measures promised by Mr. Sall had yet to materialize.

Aly Deme, 47, a fellow fisherman who traveled to Spain on that same ill-fated boat in 2006, said that Mr. Diouf “was doing the job of the government.”

“He doesn’t have the resources,” he said. “But he has the courage.”

Standing on the Thiaroye-sur-Mer beachfront, surrounded by abandoned pirogues and nets whose owners had left for Europe, Mr. Diouf pointed to low-rise buildings, mostly unfinished because of a lack of funds.

“In all these houses, at least one person left,” he said. “And in most families, someone died.”

He took out his phone and played a video posted on TikTok showing a group of ecstatic young people in a wooden boat reaching a rocky shore.

These were people he knew from his work with his nonprofit, and while the video was a sign that they had reached Europe alive, for Mr. Diouf the news was bittersweet.

“I trained her in making pastries,” he said, pointing out a smiling young woman in a colorful head scarf. “And the two guys next to her, in electricity.”

But in Senegal, they were unable to find jobs.

A tall man of commanding presence and almost brusque demeanor, Mr. Diouf has endured much loss in his life, but he typically holds back expressing emotions.

His older brother was killed when his pirogue was sunk by a big fishing trawler, Mr. Diouf said in a matter-of-fact manner, and his first wife left him and their three children because she was unhappy with the attention he was devoting to his mission.

But when he spoke about a shipwreck last month in which the ocean swallowed the lives of 15 people from the same local family in his village, his voice broke down.

“Psychologically, I just can’t support it,” he said, his eyes wet with tears. But then he gathered himself. “If I stop at least one person from dying in the sea, it’s worth it.”

The task is daunting: 75 percent of Senegalese are under 35, and young adults face immense social pressure to earn money and support their families. But doing so is becoming harder: Inflation reached almost 10 percent last year, driven mostly by a surge in food prices.

Atou Samb, a 29-year-old fisherman, has tried to get to Europe three times, and said that as soon as he gathered enough money, he was going to try again.

“We respect Moustapha a lot in the village,” said Mr. Samb, repairing a fishing net in the scorching sun. “He never stops talking about the dangers of migration. But words alone will not feed my family. There is nothing left for us here.”

On a recent morning in a local school, Mr. Diouf was speaking to a classroom of 13-year-olds. Almost all of said someone from their family had left for Spain.

“If your boat gets lost, you will all die,” Mr. Diouf said in his blunt manner. “I know you all want to help your parents. But the best way to help them is to stay alive.”

The class dutifully nodded. But when asked who wanted to stay in Senegal after they were done with school, only six out of 101 raised their hands.

Lately, even Mr. Diouf is finding it increasingly difficult to believe in his own words.

“How can I keep on telling them that they should stay, if there are no jobs?” he said. “How can I keep on telling them not to take the pirogue and to apply for a visa, when my own visa application has been rejected?”

Perhaps the most challenging task of all is persuading his own children to stay.

Ousseynou, Mr. Diouf’s oldest, is 18 and trying to make a living from fishing.

“I went out to the sea today and I haven’t found anything,” he said, standing at the doorstep of their house, where he lives with 14 family members. “The whole week has been like that.”

“I am going to leave soon,” he said.

Babacar Fall and Mady Camara contributed reporting from Dakar and Thiaroye-sur-Mer, Senegal.