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IRIN - Senegal


Success against salt: Senegalese farmers battle a major climate change threat

Thu, 14 Sep 2017 15:19:37 +0000

Climate change makes life harder for Senegalese farmers in many different ways: shorter rainy seasons, more frequent and longer dry spells and droughts, a lower water table, floods, coastal erosion, destruction of mangroves, and disruption of fish stocks. But most pernicious of all is the salinization of soil across large tracts of coastal and riverine farmland. In the village of Dioffior, some 150 kilometres southeast of the Senegalese capital, Dakar, residents have mounted a protracted battle against salt: an enemy that contaminates their land, decimates their crops and, as agriculture is the mainstay of the region’s economy, drives up poverty and food insecurity. Rising sea levels brought about by climate change have greatly increased the salt content of the nearby Sine River. In the vast Sine-Saloum delta, between 700,000 and one million hectares of land have been affected over the last 30 years. The Fatick region, where Dioffior is located, and which is the birthplace of President Macky Sall, has suffered more than most. “For decades in Sine-Saloum, the soil, which used to be known for its quality and productivity, has been badly damaged by climate change, which has led to the salinization of the waterways of the delta,” explained Seydou Cissé, who works at Senegal’s National Institute of Pedology (the study of soils). Other problems Unfortunately, soil salinization is just one of several harmful effects of climate change in Senegal. In a thesis for his master’s degree in climate change and sustainable development, Charles Pierre Sarr, who now works for Senegal’s environment ministry, noted reduced rainfall and rising temperatures around Dioffior and predicted further decreases of rainfall of 5.4 percent and 12 percent by 2025 and 2050 respectively. Senegal is “perpetually confronted with the adverse effects of climate change because of its 700-kilometre coastline which is impacted by the rising level of the sea, with the corollary of coastal erosion, the saline intrusion on farmland, the salinization of water resources and the destruction of infrastructure,” Sarr wrote. “Because agriculture is primarily rain-fed, climate change risks compromising efforts to fight poverty and efforts to reach food self-sufficiency.” Dioffior residents say the rice fields around the village were abandoned some 30 years ago. Since then, locals have worked tirelessly, carrying endless baskets of sand and rock to build dykes that turn lost fields into arable land again. The dykes keep the salty river water at bay and protect bodies of fresh water. Among those involved are some 200 women, members of an association called Sakh Diam, (“sow peace” in the Wolof language) who have recovered more than 100 hectares of land. They have their eyes set on a much larger area: in 2015 the local authorities allocated them 1,000 salty hectares of farmland. Sakh Diam has won financial support for its endeavours not only from the government of Senegal but also from those of Belgium and Japan. “These rice paddies used to be tans,” Marie Sega Sarr, the group’s president, told IRIN as she worked away in her paddy, using the Wolof word for salty land. “Nothing grew here until the Support Project for Small Local Irrigation (PAPIL) started. The anti-salt dyke you can see over there is Baboulaye 1. Where we are now is Baboulaye 2. There is another one at [the nearby commune of] Djawanda. In all, there are nine dykes around Dioffior built to combat the salinization of our agricultural land.” PAPIL was set up in the early 2000s by Senegal’s government, with help from partners such as the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the Islamic Development Bank. PAPIL ran until 2015 and has been replaced by the Multinational Programme for Resilience to Food and Nutritional Insecurity in the Sahel region. The many objectives of the programme include reclaiming thousands more hectares of salinised land in the Fatick region by 2020. “Our grandparents used to cultivate here and fed themselves from their crops,” said Marie. “Betwee[...]

The little shrub making a big difference in rural Senegal

Mon, 05 Jun 2017 09:44:25 +0000

In India, its dried leaves are used as a hair conditioner; in east Africa it’s fed to livestock; Mauritanians smoke its seeds; and in rural Senegal, where it goes by the name of leydour, its medicinal uses are helping many make up for the agricultural losses brought about by climate change. Senna (or Cassia) italica is a deciduous perennial herb that can be harvested year-round – one of the reasons its cultivation is catching on in parts of Senegal. Farmers in Nioro du Rip, a department in the central Kaolack region, have traditionally grown groundnuts, millet, and maize, but recent years have seen revenue from these crops fall. More than 300 women in three villages in the commune of Kaymor are compensating by growing the shrub on a large scale. Bocar Dioum, the former head of the commune’s health department, now runs agricultural training activities in the Kaymor area. “Leydour, which plays a part in social mobility, has radically changed the economic and health conditions of women in Kaymor,” he told IRIN. “Faced with the drop in agricultural revenue due to climate change, and the high number of consultations at the health centre, we have found an answer in the revival of medicinal plants, specifically, leydour.” Many uses In Senegalese traditional medicine, the leaves, pods, and mature seeds of leydour are used to cure stomach complaints, fever, jaundice, venereal diseases, and biliousness. The plant is also prescribed as a cure for intestinal worms, while its leaves are used as a dressing for skin problems such as burns and ulcers. “A hectare of leydour brings in much more money than two hectares of millet or groundnuts, with much less financial investment or physical effort,” explained Cheikh Ndiaye, a local village chief. “Leydour leaves can be harvested every two months, whereas millet and groundnuts are seasonal,” he said. “A kilo of leydour sells for much more (1,500 CFA francs/$2.6) than all the other crops here.” Fatou Deme heads an association of 115 women growers in Keur Samba Die and two other villages in the Kaymor commune. “The consumption of this plant has noticeably improved the health of the villagers,” she explained. “We go ever less frequently to the health centre in Kaymor. The other advantage is that we sell it, and the revenue helps us meet certain needs.” Impact of climate change Agriculture, which forms the backbone of the rural economy in Senegal, has been severely affected by climate change and the situation is only expected to get worse. According to Ibrahima Hathie, research director at the Initiative Prospective Agricole et Rurale, a Dakar-based institute that conducts research and training in agriculture, temperatures in central Senegal are set to rise by between 1.5 and 1.75 degrees by 2050, while rainfall will decline by 20 to 30 percent. “Inhabitants of the Sahel region feel the effects of climate change on a daily basis. They impact food security and access to water, and degrade ecosystems,” said Souleymane Diallo, chief of staff in the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development. “So it’s important to take steps that limit the effect of climate change on agriculture and its consequences for food and nutritional security.” Eying new markets Deme told IRIN that the Keur Samba Die collective, which has 25 members, had brought in 215,000 CFA francs ($370) this year through leydour cultivation. “Some of this is saved in a bank account and we share out the rest among members,” she explained. “It really does provide financial help and we have an interest in keeping up the cultivation of leydour in our village,” she said, adding that she hoped to find new markets with the help of government bodies and the private sector. Deme’s marketing ideas include better labelling to indicate the plant’s geographical origin as well as its various benefits. The potential market extends well beyond Senegal: In many parts of the world, the crushed, dried leaves of the leydour plant are sold, including on major onl[...]

Seeds of rural renewal sown in Senegal

Mon, 08 May 2017 14:59:54 +0000

For several decades, the prospect of a better life has prompted countless inhabitants of rural parts of Africa to head to cities. In Senegal’s Fuladu region, a local initiative aimed at making agriculture more viable aims to reverse that trend. It revolves around seeds. A veteran of the Senegalese peasant movement now in his seventies, Lamine Biaye founded and chairs the Association Sénégalaise des Producteurs de Semences Paysannes, which uses local knowledge and trading systems to boost biodiversity through the promotion of seed production. Having set up projects among women’s groups in different parts of Senegal, Biaye is currently focused on Fuladu, a region in Upper Casamance. Five years ago, he moved to the Fuladu village of Djimini, where he started an educational farm that specialises on seed production and market garden techniques. Some 350 women from a dozen villages in the area now benefit from the farm’s training programmes. “The challenge is primarily economic,” he told IRIN. “Lots of money is involved [in agricultural seeds]. We know that the multinationals don’t make things easy.” Noting that commercial onion seeds cost between 40,000 and 50,000 CFA francs ($70 to $80) per kilo, Biaye railed against a system that prices farmers out of the market for the seeds they need to survive – a fact that demonstrates why the work of grassroots movements like his ASPSP association is so vital. “Producing our own seeds is essential for ensuring our food self-sufficiency,” he said, explaining that the seeds he works with are “well adapted to our soil and climate”. “You know one has to take climate change into account,” he added. The Galmi violet onion is a case in point. “Whatever the variations in the weather, it’s a variety that thrives and reaches maturity. Its yield potential is good, even when there is less water,” said Biaye, explaining that “so-called improved or hybrid” types of onion are much more demanding, requiring expensive inputs such as fertiliser and pesticide to deliver decent yields. Fatou Diallo, who leads women farmers in Djimini, spoke highly of ASPSP’s work. “This training came at the right time. We would never have thought that one day we would be able to produce our own seeds ourselves,” she said. “We’ve taken big step forwards. ASPSP removed a major thorn from our feet, because buying seeds took up a lot of our costs. Now we are better equipped to produce more onions and sell them to our neighbours who have not yet mastered the technique of producing onion seeds, which are very expensive here.” Biaye’s farm also produces rice seeds – rice is a staple in Senegal – which it provides to farmers in the area. Once these farmers harvest their rice crops, they return the quantity of seeds they were given to the seed bank, plus an additional 25 percent that is held for that farmer for future planting. This means that every two years, participating rice farmers have enough seeds of their own to be self-sufficient. Cissokho Lassana Seeds of success: the violet de Galmi onion is a very hardy variety Twice a year, Djimini now plays host to a seed fair, which draws visitors from across Senegal and even neighbouring countries. At these events, participants trade not only seeds but also practical tips about best farming techniques. They also serve as an opportunity to sell the produce from the market gardens and to forge ties between local associations. Turning the tide In the 1960s, 70 percent of Senegal’s population lived in rural areas. By the early 1990s that proportion had dropped to 57 percent. It has stayed at a similar level ever since. As in many African states, rural-urban migration in Senegal is driven largely by the poor performance of the agricultural sector, which has shown meagre growth, especially compared to the country’s booming population. Climate change (lower and less predictable rainfall), falling cr[...]

Will a united opposition finally unseat Gambia’s strongman?

Mon, 28 Nov 2016 15:02:41 +0000

There has been unprecedented popular protest this year against the regime of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh. But as the country heads to elections this week, hope for change is giving way to trepidation he will win and extend his 22-year stay in power. Human rights organisations have warned that the conditions leading up to Thursday’s vote are not conducive to a free and fair election. There has been a spate of arrests of journalists and opposition activists in a country in which disappearances, arbitrary detention, and torture is commonplace. The Sandeng family is all too aware of those dangers. In April, they were forced to flee, crossing the border with Senegal at night, at a point they hoped would be unguarded. A week before, on 14 April, the head of the family, opposition activist Solo Sandeng, had allegedly been tortured to death by Gambia’s security forces for leading a peaceful protest near the capital, Banjul. Escape The family, five adults and five children, spent a week in hiding, knowing their home was under constant surveillance. Then, realising they had no choice but to leave, they sought refuge in Senegal. It is a well-trodden escape route for the many Gambians who find themselves on the run from political persecution. “I was told to walk across the border and not look back,” said 22-year-old Fatoumatta Sandeng. In their new home in exile, the Sandeng family crammed onto sponge mattresses on the floor as Fatoumatta related how her father, a leading member of the opposition United Democratic Party, had been marching with youth activists against new rules introduced by Jammeh to scupper his opponents’ chances in this election. It was the first opposition demonstration since 14 students were gunned down by the army in 2000. “People were protesting for electoral reforms so that there could be a change of government. Because if the elections were free and fair, which is very rare in the Gambia, people would be at least hopeful that it could bring a better Gambia for its citizens,” Fatoumatta explained. Exiled Gambians pin hope of return on a new president-elect width="640" height="360" src="" frameborder="0" gesture="media" allow="encrypted-media" allowfullscreen=""> Jason Florio and Louise Hunt/IRIN Exiled Gambians pin hope of return on a new president-elect Change Jammeh’s regime has a long history of hounding dissenters, but due to the government’s tight control over the media Gambians are often unaware of the scale of human rights violations. The very public nature of Sandeng’s arrest was a wake-up call. “In Gambia, we know there wouldn’t be any protests without the government trying to stop them,” said Fatoumatta. “But to the extent of arresting, torturing and killing someone: that was shocking to the Gambian people.” Over April and May, Sandeng’s death ignited an unprecedented public outcry against the government’s brutality. “Before, you didn’t see people protesting on the streets. People didn’t dare hold a banner that insults the president. Now, it’s happening,” noted Alhagie Jobe, a journalist who was tortured by the secret police and spent 18 months in prison before being acquitted of sedition charges. He now lives in exile in the Senegalese capital, Dakar. “It’s changing gradually. He [Jammeh] himself knows he is coming to the end of his administration. What people weren’t doing before for the past 20 years; it’s happening now. So that’s the signal that he’s losing power, gradually.” Opposition re-set Jammeh, who came to power in a military coup, responded to the bout of protests by arresting most of the UDP hierarchy, including party leader Ousainou Darboe. They were sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for unlawful assembly, destabilising the par[...]

Prostituted, beaten and held for ransom

Thu, 31 Mar 2016 11:36:37 +0000

As warmer weather brings calmer seas, more and more migrants are setting off again from the Libyan coast in smugglers’ boats bound for Italy. Eight vessels containing 1,361 people were rescued from this stretch of the Mediterranean on Wednesday alone, while dozens more are missing feared dead after their boat sank. Since the beginning of the year, more than 16,000 migrants have used this route. For most though, the journey begins on the other side of the Sahara and involves not only a treacherous desert crossing but also running the gauntlet of Libya’s people-smuggling networks. The outskirts of Libya’s main southern town and Saharan smuggling hub look post-apocalyptic. Charred frames of burnt-out cars are lodged on top of smouldering rubbish heaped by the roadside, and tracks snake off through the dirty scrubland towards half-finished houses. This is where people smugglers, who cram up to 31 people at a time into Toyota pick-up trucks for the three-day journey from Niger through the Sahara Desert, drop their customers.  Some are met by friends, relatives or smugglers, while others walk towards the town. But, although initially thankful to have survived the harsh desert crossing, migrants told IRIN the arrival in Sabha heralded the worst part of their journey to the eastern Mediterranean. “When we arrived, we were immediately taken to a kind of prison, a house where there were about 200 other migrants,” said 19-year-old Bouba from Senegal. “They made us call our families back home and demanded that they sent 2,000 Libyan dinar ($1,458) for each person.” Jens, 24, from Guinea Bissau showed scars on his arms and back, which he said were from brutal beatings inflicted by his captors. “They beat me and kept saying: ‘What’s wrong with you? Why don’t your parents send the money? Don’t they love you?’ It was horrible, but my family has so little money that it took them two months to borrow enough to pay for my release.”  Both men now live in a rough shack on a rubbish dump in Sabha, with 24 others. They are all trying to find work to pay the 500 dinar ($365) it takes to reach the Libyan capital, Tripoli, closer to the sea and a boat to Europe. Tribal complications Passage through Libya has long been the main route from Africa to Europe. Today, the main path for sub-Saharan Africans to reach the Mediterranean coast is organised between several regional tribes and runs from the city of Agadez in central Niger to Sabha. Tom Wescott/IRIN The back of a pickup is the standard method of transport to Sabha The desert route is worked almost exclusively by the Tabu, a semi-nomadic Saharan tribe populating harsh and inhospitable terrain with few opportunities in Libya, Chad and Niger. With other powerful Arab tribes dominating the smuggling of goods, people smuggling is one of few lucrative job prospects. But after a series of fierce tribal conflicts in the town, much of Sabha is now off-limits to the Tabu. “Often the migrants have a contact number of someone in Sabha and I just drop them there, on the outskirts. If they don’t know anyone, I leave them with some Arab guy but that is not my business,” 29-year-old people smuggler Adem told IRIN. “My job is to get these people from Agadez to Sabha. That’s it. After that, I don’t care.” For their onward journey, migrants are forced to rely on members of several Arab tribes, some of whom work with middlemen.  Miserable way station “Sabha is just a terrible place,” said Nigerian electrician Sammy, 35, now working in Tripoli. “When I arrived there, the Nigerian middleman said I owed him money for the journey he helped organise. I had my passport taken and was imprisoned. They demanded $2,000 and I had to phone my mother and ask her to sell all my possessions, including the family’s generator. But that only made the equivalent of 300 dinar ($219).” To[...]

Briefing: The new Jihadist strategy in the Sahel

Thu, 04 Feb 2016 00:00:00 +0000

Security has been intense over the last few weeks in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, with police and soldiers on the streets, vehicle searches, and round-ups of alleged Islamist militants. It’s the response to the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) attack in Burkina Faso on 15 January that left 30 people dead. Until the assault on the Cappuccino restaurant and the Splendid Hotel, next door on Ouagadougou’s trendy Kwame Nkrumah Avenue, Burkina Faso, like Senegal, felt safe from the jihadist violence that has destabilised other countries in the region. “We thought we were not really concerned by terrorism, that we were shielded by our armed forces and our diplomacy,” Ousmane Ouedraogo told IRIN outside his cellphone shop on Kwame Nkrumah Avenue. “But now we know we are vulnerable.” That vulnerability stems from the political instability in Burkina Faso following the youth-led toppling of Blaise Campaore after nearly three decades in power.  But there is a more fundamental fragility that has its roots in the legitimacy and authority of governments across the Sahel region, which AQIM, AQIM-linked groups, and, more recently, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) are seeking to exploit. The Burkina Faso attack was carried out by the militant group al-Mourabitoun, which had recently pledged allegiance to AQIM. The targets were popular with Western aid workers, businessmen, and soldiers serving with Operation Barkhane, France’s regional counter-insurgency mission. The raid put together a team of young men based in Mali (AQIM named three but there are suggestions three escaped); at least one of the identified men seems to have been Fulani – a pastoralist ethnic group that spans West Africa; and their cars had Niger license plates. It was, then, a fine example of regional militant integration.  It followed an earlier al-Mourabitoun attack in November that killed 21 people at the Radisson Blu Hotel in the Malian capital, Bamako. It’s a fairly safe prediction that these two events are the beginning of a trend that will continue in 2016. “Three years ago, AQIM’s plan was to hold territory in northern Mali. That has changed,” Jean-Hervé Jezequel, the senior Sahel analyst at the International Crisis Group, told IRIN. “The new strategy is that instead of managing territory, they want to show they can impact a much larger area by attacking the capitals of countries collaborating with Western forces.” Why should Senegal worry? The heightened security in Dakar is a recognition of how tempting a target it is. It’s the regional base of scores of international organisations. Senegal is a pro-Western partner, especially of France and the United States, and Dakar has provided troops to the French-backed African Union military intervention in Mali. More than 500 people have been picked up in the current crackdown.   Photo: Edgar Mwakaba/IRIN The spread of militancy There is ample evidence of Senegalese recruitment to various jihadist causes. Senegalese are among IS forces in Libya; a small group of Wolof speakers (an almost exclusively Senegalese language) were believed to have fought alongside Islamist militants in northern Mali; men speaking Wolof were among the kidnappers of Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler in Niger in 2008; young militants from the large Senegalese diaspora are believed to be with IS in Syria; and there have been periodic arrests of individuals, most recently four activists detained for alleged ties to Nigeria’s IS-linked Boko Haram.  But Senegal is also a traditionally tolerant and democratic society. Although 90-percent Muslim, for the first 20 years of independence it was ruled by a still well-regarded Catholic president, Léopold Senghor. Four popular and powerful Sufi brotherhoods dominate religious practice. The brotherhoods have been described as the gatekeepers between the people and the state, conferring legitimacy on the lat[...]

AQIM incident map

Fri, 15 Jan 2016 00:00:00 +0000

This is a quick map of conflict events attributed to AQIM from 2007-2015, compiled from the ACLED dataset. Search by location, click a dot for event details.

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(image) Millet preparation in Bandiagara, Mopti Region of Mali. The crop has been hit by a succession of poor harvests. Ben Parker Maps and Graphics Conflict Human Rights LONDON IRIN Africa West Africa Burkina Faso Chad Mali Mauritania Niger Senegal Libya Algeria

Lives on hold for families of missing migrants

Mon, 19 Oct 2015 23:00:00 +0000

When migrants go missing on the long journey from Africa to Europe the lack of information about their fate often adds immense bureaucratic hurdles to the anxious uncertainty suffered by their relatives back home. Baye Aly Diop, for example, has heard nothing from his son Cheikou since shortly after he and 61 others left the Senegalese fishing village of Thiaroye-sur-Mer, near Dakar, in March 2006, with the aim reaching Europe. The last contact with his son was a phone call a few days later, when Cheikou said he had reached Mauritania and was about to board a boat to the Canary Islands. Many thousands of migrants have drowned on that sea, more than 3,000 this year alone. But only recently has any attempt been made to track the missing. SEE: Better management of dead and missing migrants needed in Europe “He wanted to be more than just a tailor,” Diop, who now runs a local support group for the families of missing migrants, known as ASCRFAT, told IRIN. “I couldn’t say anything to stop him. He had his own money and, honestly, I wasn’t afraid anything would happen to him.”  The final leg of the journey was expected to last just two or three days. “We never heard from him, or any of them, again,” Diop said, staring down at his hands. “No phone call, nothing.” Photo: Ricci Shryock/IRIN Fishermen in their boats off the coast of Thiaroye Diop, and some of the other families believe they saw their loved ones in a video of a group of migrants disembarking – maybe in Spain, maybe in Morocco - which was shown on a nightly Euronews newscast in May – many weeks after the boat should have arrived.  “I think it’s possible he’s still living,” Diop said, explaining that he still maintains hope, as there was never any news of a sunken boat or drowned migrants around the time his son left. “But it hurts me. I kept calling and calling and calling [Spain], trying to find him.” There are no figures on how many Senegalese go missing while attempting to migrate each year, but according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), there have been 1,026 reported deaths in the Mediterranean among migrants originating from sub-Saharan Africa since the beginning of 2015.  The Red Crescent Society in Mauritania estimates that around 40 percent of boats carrying migrants sank around the time Cheikou tried to make the crossing, with some 1,200 people, of various origins, perishing between November 2005 and April 2006. Most of the vessels were little more than double-motor fishing boats, not equipped with navigation systems. No funeral Diop, like most other families in the community, never held a funeral. He says only on the tenth anniversary of the disappearances will the families finally have a commemorative ceremony and accept that their loved ones are gone for ever.  “It’s a real problem if a person doesn’t come back,” said Nicolas Mendy, who runs the Senegalese Red Cross’s psychosocial support program for the families of missing migrants. “Families put their lives on hold, for many years, believing they will return and we can’t say anything because it’s their belief. All we can do is listen and try to help them through the trauma by offering psychosocial support.”  The Red Cross now holds weekly counselling sessions for the families of missing migrants in Senegal. They also offer literacy classes and entrepreneurial business trainings for women, who are often the most affected when their husbands never return. Photo: Ricci Shryock/IRIN Baye Aly Diop looks at the book that documents the men from his town that went missing in 2006 after taking a boat to Europe. No body, no death Beyond the emotional trauma of not knowing the fate of the migrants, and the financial strain many families are left with after losing their main breadwinner, most are also caught in a legal limbo, unable to [...]

The new boom aid job: cultural mediator

Thu, 15 Oct 2015 23:00:00 +0000

A by-product of the dramatic rise in the number of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe is soaring demand for a relatively new kind of humanitarian professional: the cultural mediator.  As the first point of contact the refugees have on arrival, cultural mediators play a crucial role: translating, informing and generally acting as go-betweens with the local authorities. They advise migrants about their rights and the services available in their new country. They also explain the cultural differences they need to be aware of as they navigate life in a foreign land, all the while relaying vital information back to aid workers. In Italy, in particular, there is increasing demand from humanitarian organisations for people who can act as these “bridges” with migrants and refugees. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, recently advertised positions in Sicily, and universities in southern Italy have started offering Masters degrees in the field. The University of Catania describes its one-year course as “a training of experts in counselling and advising in the domains of civil rights, migration and language-cultural mediation”.  Speaking the right language Of the nearly 600,000 migrants and refugees who have crossed the Mediterranean by boat this year, 137,000 have landed in Italy – making it the second major point of arrival after Greece.  One of the first major obstacles Italian authorities face in receiving the new arrivals is language. “This is the biggest problem today in Italy regarding hosting refugees: the lack of communication,” Senegalese cultural mediator Moussa Mbaye told IRIN. Since 2011, Mbaye has worked as a cultural mediator at the biggest centre for asylum seekers in Italy – CARA Mineo in Sicily. The centre hosts around 3,000 asylum seekers, some of whom have been waiting for more than a year for their claims to be determined. In the meantime, their movements are restricted, they cannot work, and they receive a modest daily allowance of 2.50 euros to buy food and other basics in Mineo – a town of 5,000 residents 60 kilometres from Catania. After 16 months in Mineo, Salomon, a 25-year-old Nigerian, had just received a negative response to his asylum request.   “How come they expect young men not to work or to be able to meet friends outside in the night for one year? Nobody speaks English, only the cultural mediators,” he told IRIN. Helping people integrate Mbaye often acts as the go-between, translating and explaining the asylum seekers’ concerns to the authorities and vice versa. “It was easier to gain the trust of Italians working there than of the West Africans, because most of them don’t know what cultural mediators do or tend to be more suspicious,” he said. For him, the role of cultural mediation is a vital one for facilitating migrants’ integration into Italian society, particularly as they try to access crucial public services like healthcare. “The right to health is assured in the Italian Constitution to everybody on Italian soil, but it is hard to find public hospital doctors able to speak English or French here,” said Andrea Bellardinelli, Italy coordinator for the medical NGO Emergency. To tackle the problem, the organisation has been lobbying the Italian health ministry and other government departments responsible for the welfare of refugees and migrants to hire more translators and cultural mediators.  “Cultural mediators are crucial,” Bellardinelli told IRIN. “They are a vital link between patients and doctors. There are different approaches to medicine and health treatment in the West and in the East. What we consider the heart, other cultures believe is the stomach.” frameborder="0" height="252" src="" width="448"> Since July, the NGO has offered first aid to refugees and m[...]

No way forward, No way back

Sun, 30 Aug 2015 23:00:00 +0000

Will the arrival into a Libyan port of a vessel full of decomposing bodies force migrants waiting to cross the Mediterranean to think again? In the early hours of Thursday morning, a decrepit wooden fishing boat overloaded with some 350 refugees and migrants hoping to reach European shores, started taking on water a few miles off the coast of Libya. According to survivors, the boat foundered as water poured in through cracks that opened in the hull. Those crammed below deck, mostly sub-Saharan Africans who had paid less for their passage, were unable to escape through the narrow hatches. Most of the 196 survivors were among those on deck who managed to swim towards the shore or cling to wreckage from the boat until they were rescued by fishermen, members of the coastguard and the Libyan Red Crescent.  libya_photo_1.jpg Mohamed Ben Kalifa/IRIN As the boat was towed into port, the grim task of removing trapped bodies began Ahmed, 27, from the Tunisian town of Tatouine, described how he had held onto a piece of the engine’s exhaust system for hours and watched his childhood friend drown before being rescued. “We didn't even tell our families we were leaving,” he said, his eyes welling with tears. “We thought there was little future for us in Tunisia, but now my friend has no future.” As the search for survivors wound down on Thursday evening, the submerged vessel was towed into the port of Zuwara. At dusk, Red Crescent staff, port workers and volunteers struggled to extract bodies through the hatches. Eventually the whole deck was ripped up to facilitate the easier removal of the dead. Sub-Saharan African migrant workers – widely employed in Libya for manual work – were used to help remove the bodies.  “One of these guys was handling the bodies as if he was unloading cargo, with no expression on his face,” commented a local volunteer. “I know all the sub-Saharans here in Zuwara are saving money to go to Italy so I asked this guy if he still wanted to take a boat to Europe. He stared back at me with dead eyes and said: ‘I’m just so confused.’”  libya_photo_2.jpg Mohamed Ben Kalifa/IRIN Migrants in Libya are faced with three equally grim choices: they can take their chances crossing the Mediterranean in an unsafe smuggler’s boat; return home via an equally perilous route through the desert; or stay in Libya, where work is limited and conditions miserable and insecure.  The International Organization for Migration estimates that at least 2,400 migrants have perished at sea trying to reach Europe so far this year, the vast majority while travelling the Central Mediterranean route between Libya and Italy. But many still see the boats as their only option. Libya’s crumbling economy has reduced employment opportunities in a country once viewed as a lucrative place to work. “I’m really scared about taking the boat, but what else can I do?” said 31-year-old Mohamed, a labourer from Sudan currently working in Tripoli. “I can’t go home with nothing because it would be shameful, and there is so little work here in Libya, I will have to take the boat.” Crouching near him, beneath a Tripoli flyover where migrants wait, hoping to be chosen for a day’s work, 19-year-old Ahmed from Guinea shook his head. “I’ve seen the boats. They are bad boats, and they put too many people in them,” he said. “I had wanted to go, but when I got here and saw the boats, I decided not to.” He plans instead to apply for a visa for Europe when he gets back to Guinea, although he has no idea when that might be. “I’m not going in that sea,” said 23-ye[...]