Dakar, Senegal – The last thing Aissata Ndiaye remembers before she woke up in a Moroccan hospital was helpless shivering while watching her friend Khadija, a young mother, drifting off into the Mediterranean. The inflatable boat they were trying to cross the sea on on his back had just capsized. Ndiaye was only one of the few who managed to get back on board.
Ndiaye, who was only 21 at the time, had paid the woman more than 1 million CFA francs (about $1,700) to secure her travel from Tangiers to Spain. She had hoped to enter university as soon as she arrived.
“I went through a lot of pain,” Ndiaye said. “I dreamed of traveling the world, and I did, but not in the way I wanted to.”
Every year, thousands of people find wise ways to travel from different parts of sub-Saharan Africa to try to cross into Europe in search of a better life and escape conflict and persecution.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), around 2,400 people died or disappeared while trying to migrate to Europe in the first nine months of this year – more than in the whole of last year. About 1,200 deaths were recorded on the road from Libya to Italy. Others end up in labor camps or squatters in remote parts of North Africa.
On average, more than half of all Mediterranean crossings are unsuccessful.
On Ndiaye’s trip in 2019, four of her friends died. She found herself alone and says she was tortured in Morocco, then was sent to Algeria where she was beaten and sent to Niger. In the end, she was able to return home in Senegal with the help of the International Organization for Migration.
Now, the 23-year-old, along with a number of other returning refugees and asylum seekers, have turned to films to explore the intricacies of immigration. Their work is highlighted at this year’s IOM Global Migration Film Festival, which is currently taking place in 13 countries across West and Central Africa. It runs until December 18, when the winners will be announced on International Migrants Day.
“We always see images of immigration made by Europeans or Americans,” said Tabara Lee Wan, co-producer of a documentary La Maison Bleue competing in the festival’s main category. “It is absolutely essential that Africans themselves talk about their stories – that they tell their own experiences.”
For the first time, a special film competition is being held for people like Ndiaye who volunteer for IOM’s “Migrants as Messenger” project.
Her film, Sous Mes Pieds (Under My Feet), was shown at a community screening last weekend in the Yaraax district of Dakar, where the informal outdoor space filled with children and young adults.
“Cinema has an immediate advantage,” said Maguyi Kass, the Senegalese art critic who chose the film festival jury. “It confronts you, it shocks you with an image, and the image makes you think.”
The idea behind Migrants as Reporters is to overcome potential mistrust of institutional messaging by using peer-to-peer messaging from returning migrants instead. The program trains volunteers in photography, theater, journalism, and video production, and works with them to initiate conversations in their communities.
The IOM said the goal is not to discourage people from traveling, but rather to raise awareness about the dangers of irregular migration and promote safe routes. Christopher Gascon, the organization’s regional director for West and Central Africa, knows this is not always realistic.
When you deal [with] Desperate, it’s so hard to say, “Oh, why don’t you look for a regular path?” “There are regular options for travel, but it all correlates with how well prepared you are, and that has to do with development and education.”
However, he wants to inform people “what might await them there”.
Migration again became a hot issue recently in Europe when thousands of people gathered at Belarus’s border with Poland, where they are camped out in the freezing cold. This week, at least 27 people drowned in the English Channel when their boat capsized while attempting to cross from France.
And for those who do, things usually don’t get any easier.
Zidi Dabo, Mali, traveled in 2017 by boat to Italy with his wife and three children, but ended up living in a tent on the outskirts of Paris. Four years later, he is still waiting for a response to his asylum application and is not allowed to work.
Although his family now lives in a safer shelter, and his children are in school and doing well, he does not advise the route he took. “I would not encourage anyone to cross the Mediterranean — not even my staunch enemy,” Dabo said.
There is also the stigma that refugees and asylum seekers face when returning home. Fatou Git Ndiaye, who directed the film Mantolay, said she had to repeat a school year after attempting her flight.
As a teenager, she boarded a wooden fishing boat bound for the Canary Islands, but had to return six days later when the captain got lost. She ruined her parents.
She said, “They scolded me—they even beat me—because they said it was not appropriate for a girl in her final year of high school to leave all that and go to Spain…in a canoe with the boys.”
As for Aissata Ndiaye, who says she has wanted to be a film director since she was a child, she hopes the film festival will help her build a career in the industry.
If she wins the competition, she plans to use the prize – new film equipment – to launch more projects and “show her talent” to the world.
“I know I will continue to focus on immigration,” she said. I have a lot of things to say about immigration; It’s so vast and mysterious, and there’s so much to say.”