Un jour de l'an 2007 14 jeunes Sénégalais traversèrent l'Atlantique sur une frêle embarcation, munis de leurs maigres provisions et d'un GPS. Après un périple de 47 jours, ils atteignirent les cotes d' Amérique, en plein hiver furent arrêtés, et mis en prision dans le New Jersey.
Une pétition en leur faveur fut organisée, qui recueillit plusieurs centaines de signatures de New Yorkers concernés et admiratifs
Avec le profil bas adopté par l'ambassade et le consulat du Sénégal, notre communauté dakaroise de Brooklyn organisa une collecte de fonds, une campagne de presse, ainsi que des visites réguliéres à la prison de Elizabeth Detention Center dans le New Jersey, pour assister et réconforter ces jeunes et braves guerriers.
Notre pétition fut adressée aux sénateurs Barack Obama et Hillary Clinton, qui, à l'époque, se disputaient l'investiture démocrate, et soulignait le fait que si ces jeunes étaient venus de Cuba, ou de Kosovo, ils auraient reçu un accueil plus humain.
Nous rappellions aussi que l'emprisonnement de ces jeunes Sénégalais ne se justifiait pas car ils n'avaient pas commis de crime, et que cette mesure était en contradiction avec la tradition américaine symbolisée par l'accueil que la Statue de la Liberté promettait:"Give me your poor, give me your braves".
Un grand merci à la communauté de Brooklyn, notamment Mme Letitia James, City Council Member, Mr John Wilkinson de l'organisation caritative Sojourner, la communauté artistique et littéraire, et Chef Pierre Thiam du restaurant Grand Dakar, dont le livre d'or fut "confisqué" pour les besoins de la cause, puisqu'ayant servi à recueillir les signatures.
L'article de la journaliste Leslie Ann Murray ci-après, publié dans l'hebdomadaire Amsterdam News basé à Harlem, relate l'extraordinaire odyssée de ces jeunes Jambars du Sénégal,.
14 Senegalese shipwrecked off Brooklyn in search of economic freedom
By Leslie Ann Murray, Amsterdam News, 29 March 2007. English Language.
Imagine being stuck in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean for almost three months on a catamaran with nothing to eat, quenching your starvation with salt water, and seeing many of your fellow boat-mates deteriorate. The vast ocean becomes their final resting place.
This was not an American endurance reality show sponsored by Royal Caribbean Cruises. Instead, for the 14 surviving Senegalese men who endured a treacherous 47-day journey from West Africa, their quest for economic asylum equates their life.
The 50-foot stranded motorboat was 800 miles off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, when the captain of the Melbourne saw the 14 Senegalese on a catamaran. The captain then sailed his vessel toward the catamaran, which sported the U.K. flag.
The men, ages from 23 to 43, were detained in the ship’s gymnasium until security checks by the Melbourne crew were preformed.
Although the trans-Atlantic trip reaped havoc, both physically and mentality, in the 14 Senegalese, Lucille Cirillo of the U.S. Customs and Boarder Protection, said, “They were in relatively good condition, based in their circumstances. They were just a bit malnourished.”
The 14 Senegalese did not posses valid U.S. visas; many of them carried their passports and Senegalese identification cards, and some held no credentials.
After the men were rescued aboard the Melbourne, their decrepit boat finally gave way to the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.
Trips of this magnitude are not decided on a whim; they are strategically planned and the destination routes mapped out months in advance. Although the boat appeared rickety, often yachts, such as the one carrying 14 Senegalese, are equipped with modern GPS tracking systems.
Usually disenchanted Senegalese men, who leave their country for economic opportunity via motorboats, typically sail 910 miles away to the Canary Islands, a former colony of Spain.
In an attempt to curve the so-called illegal immigration, Spain granted residency to over 700,000 foreigners in 2005. The Spanish authorities have joined forces with the Senegalese government to create the African Plan, wherein Spain will repatriate illegal immigrants in return for assisting legal Senegalese immigrants to find sustainable employment on the island.
As the Canary Islands starts to tighten their entrance routes, similar to when the Moroccan government established more rigid border patrols along its northern coast and customary Sahara Desert route, Idrahima Diafoumd, president of the Senegalese Association of America, said more Senegalese may just attempt the voyage to America.
“Even if they close the borders, they will find the means to get out. If the government is not willing to find an economic solution for the youth problem, they will go,” Diafoumed said. “How can you be at 28 to 30, and living at your mommy and daddy’s house, and never work a day in your life? Sometimes, these men have a moral obligation to go; this is one of the reasons why people are leaving.”
Critics of Abdoulye Wade’s administration, the newly reelected president of Senegal, say that the 80-year-old leader has not built an economic infrastructure in the country, resulting in many Senegalese leaving the country via dangerous avenue to achieve financial progress.
Senegalese men, who survive the trip from their country’s port of exit to the Canary Islands, typically end up working in the informal sectors as street peddlers and in vineyards.
Bara Diokhane, a Senegalese artist who recently debuted one of his collections at the MOCADA art gallery in Brooklyn, dedicated his piece “Barsax” to Senegalese migrant grape pickers in Spain. Diokhane said Senegalese men are “the new victims of the economic war in Senegal, which creates refugees.”
“When 20 men make it, that means 50 died in the ocean,” Diokhane stated. “These guys are really heroes to survive coming from Africa.”
Because of the secretive nature of these trips, the number of fatalities is often unknown, and they are not recorded by the Senegalese government. Fortunately, for the 14 Senegalese, all on board managed to survive the treacherous trip.
This long journey on a dilapidated yacht from Africa to New York is an unusual case. Typically, this happens in Miami and San Juan, where immigrants from the Caribbean use catamarans to make the trek over to the United States, Cirillo stated. These men were specifically bound for New York. “They were just looking to hit shore, get off their boat and find jobs.”
John Wilkinson of Nah We Yone, an organization that helps displaced Africans who reside in the United States, regularly visits the detainees for counseling and aiding them in attainting legal representation.
Wilkinson said though some of the 14 Senegalese had family in New York City, they never told them about their trip.
“The relatives that I spoke to were stunned that they were here,” Wilkinson said. “They didn’t tell anyone that they were coming; all they had was their phone numbers and addresses.”
Many Senegalese men who voyage to Spain (and in this case, the United States) by boat are often smuggled onto these vessels by local fishermen. These fishermen, who once had free reign of the coastline, are unable to fish properly due to the Fisheries Partnership Agreements with the Senegalese and western governments.
The fisheries agreement allows foreign industrial boats (unusually European and American) to fish unrestrictedly. Because many of these foreign boats fish excessively in Senegalese waters, it becomes difficult for local fisherman to sustain their livelihood.
Senegalese migrants pay an estimated $300 to $500 to local fisherman for their voyage to the west.
Although U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) did not want to confirm, Wilkinson said that two of the 14 Senegalese men were deported back to Senegal, adding that ICE “told us that two men didn’t give answers indicating that they wanted to stay in America; I am skeptical of this.”
Seven of the men have already seen an immigration judge and have asked for more time to find attorneys. Meanwhile, five of them still have not seen immigration judges, and Wilkinson fears that they will also be deported to Senegal.
Twelve of the Senegalese men remain in the custody of Immigration and Custom Enforcement, staying in a detention camp in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Cheikh Niang, the Senegalese consulate general on New York City, was unable to comment on the situation. He simply said that the government in Senegal is aware of the case.