“Get Rich or Die Trying”: A Perspective on Migration to Europe from West Africa

Several dozen thatched ochre painted chalets interspersed with lush green lawns, bright bougainvillea and shiny palm plants and a couple of swimming pools, line up along a pristine sandy beach.

It is June 2015 and this is Somone, a resort right on the edge of Senegal’s Atlantic coastline. Popular with European tourists looking for off-season bargains and busloads of staff from various organisations holding their retreats and AGMs, the resort exudes the relative calm and stability usually associated with Senegal itself.

Considered one of Africa’s stable democracies and relatively better performing economies (World Bank forecasts estimate a real GDP growth rate of 4.8% in 2015), Senegal nonetheless still sees significant numbers of its young citizens trying each year to reach Europe where they believe life would be much better for them. Perhaps this can be partly explained by the fact that according to the World Bank, poverty remains high at 46.7%, and the number of poor has risen since 2006.

Back to Somone, on most evenings, small groups of young men gather on the beach for exercise, which usually involves a combination of kicking around a football and some quite intense well-coordinated football drills. I come across one such a group of four young men one evening, all sporting replica football jerseys of well-known European sides. Of course, we predictably start talking about European football, but somehow the conversation veers straight to migration. Probably after learning that although I grew up in Africa, I have been living in Europe for years.

Are they following the current raging migration debate? Do they want to go to Europe? Have they tried to go to Europe before? All four answer, Yes, Yes and No respectively.

“Until there are opportunities for us here and we can support ourselves and our families here, we will always dream of Europe,” says one in a Marseille top. Or America, he says, adding helpfully that it’s easier though to get to Europe than America.

“Do people in Europe, America, all these places, really think that people make this difficult journey just for the fun of it?,” asks his friend wearing an Arsenal top and tracksuit bottom. He looks at me quizzically as if expecting me to answer on behalf of Europeans and Americans.

Before I can cobble together some sort of answer, his Paris St Germain-clad friend shouts: “Get rich or die trying,” as he gives his Arsenal top wearing friend standing next to him, a mighty big but friendly thump on the back. “You know that song from Fiddy, right?” ‘Fiddy’ is of course American rapper 50 Cent, who coincidentally just a weeks after this encounter, filed for bankruptcy.

I tell him that, yes as a matter of fact, I do know who ‘Fiddy’ is but I’m pretty sure he was not rapping about irregular migration, but of course, I immediately get his point. Europe is seen by many young people in this region and indeed many other parts of Africa as the only option for them to achieve their dreams. They see no opportunities or a future in their own countries.

What about the fact that they might not make it, first of all across the Sahara desert, where it is believed that an unknown number die each year trying to cross from West Africa to North Africa and then the Mediterranean where many have died or gone missing after their unseaworthy vessels capsized as they tried to reach Europe’s southern shores (at the time of the encounter, over 1,800 had died or gone missing trying to cross the Mediterranean sea to Europe). The grim figure has now surpassed 3,100 as of 15/10/2015.

Even after hearing this, they appear unperturbed and the one in a well-worn Borussia Dortmund top seems to speak for all of them – judging by how vigorously the others are nodding their heads in agreement – when he says: “No pain, no gain, my friend. When you have nothing like some of us or you have no hope for a better future, you are going to try and cross that desert, get on the boat and try and get to where you think you will succeed. If you live, like some of us do, at some stage you just reach a point where possible death doesn’t scare you that much. That’s what he means by ‘Get rich or die trying’.”

Gesturing at the resort behind us, I suggest that surely Senegal, one of Africa’s more stable and better performing democracies, has some opportunities for its young people, ‘Marseille’ looks over his shoulder and simply says: “If you are connected, maybe.”

As the sun sets over the Atlantic, we part ways and ‘Borussia Dortmund’ says: “Maybe we will see you in Europe, one day my brother.”

Several months on, I wonder if any of the four have made that perilous journey to Europe.