Why young Africans try their luck in Saudi Arabia

Workers carry metal bars on a construction site in Riyadh
Many young Africans head to Saudi Arabia in search of work. The demand for foreign workers is high in the oil-rich country. Pictured here: workers on a construction site in Riyadh (image: Getty Images/AFP/F. Nureldine)

Every year, thousands of people die making the crossing from Senegal to Europe in rickety fishing boats. Many others from West Africa head for Saudi Arabia, where they end up as undocumented migrants – without papers, rights and prospects.

It is late morning in Rufisque, a little over 20 kilometres from the Senegalese capital, Dakar. Ndeye Fatou Fall is opening up her shop, which is housed in a purple container. The shelves are piled high with shampoos, creams, artificial hair, false nails, sewing silk and zips. There are no customers today.

Ndeye Fatou Fall started the shop with money she managed to save while running a little breakfast restaurant. Some of the money came from her time in Saudi Arabia. The mother of four lived there as a migrant for eight years. Her journey, unlike that of thousands of mostly young men from Senegal and its neighbouring countries, didn't start in a rickety pirogue in the Atlantic, but with a plane ticket and a visa in her passport. "I was still illegal, though," she says.

Her breakfast restaurant is nearby; a friend of hers runs it now. A young man is sitting on a wooden bench eating a baguette with spaghetti and mayonnaise. Ndeye Fatou Fall has plenty of experience serving customers: even before going to Saudi Arabia, she ran a little cafeteria.

But then her husband divorced her, and she had to raise her four daughters by herself. She didn't want to leave the girls behind on their own, but her family pressured her into it. Eventually, Ndeye Fatou Fall agreed to go to Saudi Arabia. A middleman arranged her visa and a position in a prosperous family: "The only thing I had to organise myself was my passport."

Children can be seen in between colourful boats lined up on a beach in Dakar, Senegal
Although the crossing from Senegal to Europe is highly dangerous and many lose their lives attempting it, young people in particular are willing to take the risk in the hope of reaching Europe and building a better future for themselves (image: Zane Irwin/AP Photo/picture alliance)

A long tradition of emigration

Many Africans, especially on the east of the continent, head to Saudi Arabia. The women who go there mostly work in private homes, where they have no protection and their working hours are unregulated. Shortly after her arrival, Ndeye Fatou Fall had an accident at work. "I had to carry six heavy suitcases up to the third floor." She fell and broke her left leg. She still has a scar to remind her of the accident. She was given a metal implant, but had to go back to work just two months later. And she wasn't paid what she was promised, either.

"Before I went there, there was talk of 300,000 CFA francs [around €450]," she says. In fact, she was paid less than a third of that. Nonetheless, she had to fulfil her first contract, which meant staying for at least two years. She later went back to Saudi Arabia a second time. "What was I supposed to do in Senegal? I'd sold everything and had no capital to make a new start."

Senegal has a long tradition of emigration. Most people, however, remain in the region. Within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), people are free to live wherever they like, so there is no reliable data on migrant numbers. However, there is also increased migration of undocumented people across the Mediterranean. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), 3,041 migrants died or went missing on this route in 2023 – around 1,000 more than in 2021. In total, more than 57,500 people reached the Spanish mainland, and at least 40,000 made it to the Canary Islands.

There are a number of reasons why people leave. The majority of migrants are young people, who hope for a better life in Europe, and, above all, more prospects for the future. They may also be driven by discontent with the political situation: in the run-up to the elections in Senegal on 24 March, people demonstrated to protest irregularities. Families also put pressure on their members to go: for many, regular wire transfers from abroad of even €100 to €200 represent a lot of money.

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Migration is the dominant topic

Migration is the big topic in the city of Saint Louis, near the Mauritanian border. Everyone here has someone in the family who has left for Europe. Relatives often don't see each other for years at a time. Historically, the city has lived from fishing, but this is becoming increasingly difficult, which also prompts people to leave.

All the families in the little houses on the beach are plagued with the fear that one of their sons will not show up for dinner one evening, because he's in a fishing boat heading for the Canaries. Forty-one-year-old Yaye Meissa Dieye has lived with this fear for decades. 

In her family, the men are fishermen, and the women sell the fish. "Even my husband wanted to leave when we were young," she says. "I always managed to convince him that our future was here." Now, though, she fears for their eldest son. 

She believes that what is needed are job opportunities that will enable young people to earn enough money to provide themselves with a modest living and the prospect of a future.

One-hundred-and-seventy kilometres further south, Ndeye Fatou Fall is calling for the same thing. She eventually walked out on her boss in Saudi Arabia – but he had confiscated her passport. "Friends put me up, and I found better work. But I didn't have papers anymore. Instead, I was always afraid of being stopped by the police."

When the former Senegalese President Macky Sall came to visit Saudi Arabia, and a new law was passed there, decreeing that undocumented migrants had to leave the country, she and other Senegalese women went to the consulate and asked to be repatriated. She managed to bring a little money back with her. 

"But my relationship with my daughters was very badly affected. We had to rebuild it," she says. She did, however, manage to do one thing while she was in Saudi Arabia: "Once in my life, I have been to Mecca."

© KNA 2024 

Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins