Senegalese hoping for better lives wait as 'impossible' route to US shuts

A popular passage used by thousands of Senegalese migrants to enter the US via flights to Nicaragua and a land route through Mexico has become practically "impossible", a Senegalese man who made the trip has told Sky News. 

Local authorities have banned travel agents from selling plane tickets from Dakar to Nicaragua. Airports in Casablanca and Madrid - key transit hubs for the route - imposed transit visas on Senegalese passport holders earlier this year.

The crackdown comes after US authorities arrested Senegalese migrants 20,231 times for crossing the border illegally from July to December.

That's 10 times more arrests than in the last six months of 2022, according to US Customs and Border Protection.

"There are some friends who ask how I did it, they were curious but didn't have the money to make it," a Senegalese man who made the journey in August 2023 tells us from his new home in the US.

"I put some of them in touch with the guy who helped me but some waited too long and now the route is closed."

He says he spent 10 years' worth of savings boosted by a loan from his sister to buy the £5,200 plane ticket to Nicaragua and pay £2,600 for smugglers taking them through Central America.

"It was very hard. I just got information from one of my friends that it was possible to attempt the US via Nicaragua and at that point I didn't even have a passport," he said.

He flew from Dakar to Casablanca to Madrid and after a 23-hour transit boarded a flight to Bogotá. From there, he flew to San Salvador and finally took a last flight to the Nicaraguan capital, Managua.

After five flights, the difficult journey had only just begun.

'Guys were celebrating... crying'

He boarded a bus from Nicaragua to Honduras and then to Mexico where smugglers transported them in pickup trucks and by foot to the US border.

He says he was robbed by gangsters multiple times as he traversed the tough terrain of rivers and mountains to make it to the fence.

"When they cut the fence and brought us across, guys were celebrating, crying and shouting. After that we had to walk for a long distance but we were too happy to feel it," he said.

Read more:
Senegalese mourn deaths of hundreds trying to reach Europe
The UK is 'not a safe country', frightened asylum seekers say
Dad of girl who died explains why family tried to cross Channel

He spent two days at the border detention camp on the US-Mexico border before he was released.

It took him 18 days to make it and says that for others it can take a month. There is no doubt in his mind that he made the right choice, even as he waits for permanent status.

"Senegal is very hard - I went to university and have a masters degree. It is better [here in the US] than Senegal. What they pay here in one week is more than [what they pay] a month in Senegal," he added.

It comes as Donald Trump is promising to crack down on illegal immigration and restrict legal immigration if elected in November to a second four-year term in the White House.

Meanwhile, his opponent in the US general election, Joe Biden, is mulling a broader executive order to crack down on border crossings that may come later this year.

Yet, young men across Dakar are working to earn money in case a similar route to the US taken by the Senagalese man opens.

The journey through Nicaragua to the US is seen as a safer - albeit expensive - alternative to the deadly Atlantic route to the Canary Islands by fishing boat and the arduous land journey through North Africa to the Mediterranean Sea and then across to Italy.

For those who have survived those routes, the cost of trying and failing is much higher than the thousands of pounds needed to get to the US.

'I thought slavery was finished'

Window-cleaner Issa, 32, says he was enslaved, tortured and detained in Libya before agreeing to return to Dakar.

He now organises a support group called Young Migrant Returnees that meet to work through the trauma they experienced in Libya and other corridor countries and raise awareness around the dangers.

"It was incredibly difficult - forced labour - we faced terrible things and we don't want it to happen to friends and family," he said.

"There were many of us and a lot of them died on the road. Some of them were imprisoned but we had a chance to come back to our country."

He added: "I will never forget those memories. I thought that slavery was finished but from what I've experienced it's still happening."

Read more:
Thousands of migrants heading to US ahead of border crisis talks
Trump and Biden promise tough action on immigration
NY is a city of immigrants - but mayor says migration may 'destroy' it

Repelled from trying again via Libya and horrified by the hundreds of young men dying in the North Atlantic, they weigh up their options.

Issa's brother was in Brazil when the Nicaragua route opened up and is now in the US.

"If someone presented us with an opportunity to leave, which is different to the Libya route, we will take it because we are living a hard life in Senegal," he said.

"Even those who worked in factories - the pay cheque is not good."