By Pedro Noel and Laura Dixon

Manning the bustling stalls that make up the marché H.L.M. in central Dakar, merchants shout for attention as they try to persuade shoppers to buy their myriad patterned fabrics from different corners of Africa: Khartoum cloth, lingerie, ribbons, shoes, and jewellery. In the air is the smell of recently-fried beignets being laid to dry on large sheets of newspaper.

In one brightly coloured section, rolls of the patterned waxprint fabric used for traditional Senegalese dresses and headscarves are piled high, as men and women look through the exquisite batik patterns and decide what to buy. It is exactly the same industrially-produced waxprint that can be found on the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil, being sold by the Senegalese migrants that have made the crossing over the Atlantic.

Mourtalala Mbow, one of the merchants here in Dakar, says his brother Laye moved to Brazil two years ago. He still works selling clothes, only now in Sao Paulo, among other small-scale traders selling this traditional cloth to feed the demand of this ever-growing community.

But why Brazil? Why Latin America? Although the most common emigration route from Senegal goes towards Europe, Latin American countries – such as Brazil, Ecuador and Argentina – are gradually becoming destinations for those leaving in search of a better quality of life.

Firstly the route to the Americas is cheaper. Even if Europe is geographically closer, the price paid to human smugglers to head north is significantly higher than the costs to migrate to the American hemisphere. Secondly, it is safer.

Most of the Senegalese that arrive in Latin America do so legally without the help of coyotes or people smugglers, flying into countries like Ecuador or Brazil. Although not so wealthy as European countries, some Latin American nations – particularly Brazil and Argentina – offer enough economic possibilities for those who want to escape their home country and start a new life.

Throughout Senegal, it is not uncommon to meet people who have relatives or friends on the other side of the Atlantic. While countries like France, Spain and Italy are seem as wealthier, places in the Americas are considered “in development” and “growing”, while periodic remittances from Brazil to Senegal to help pay for the families left behind and add to the continents growing appeal.

“After my brother left I became the chief of the family. Now I’m the responsible for his wife and son here. I’ll take care of them until he is back or we get to send them to Brazil, too”, explained “A”, speaking in Thiés, 55 km from Dakar.

Sissé, who is 40 and who works as a lumberjack in Thouba, Senegal’s second largest city, is not even sure about the name of the city in Brazil his son went to. Like many others, his son used a local “agency” to help with his travel, but he has not been able to get in touch with him since he left.

“The fact that we find Senegalese in Latin America is not actually a surprise if you consider that we are talking about a population that is constantly looking for alternative strategies regarding where they can go,” explains Yvain Bon from the International Organization of Migration (IOM) in Dakar. “This all works by word of mouth. The moment passage to Spain and Italy got more difficult, information about alternative routes spread very fast”.

Most of the Senegalese migrants moving to Latin America come from the agricultural eastern region of Diourbel, he says. An area once known for its peanut industry, a downturn in the 60s led many members of the community to leave as a survival strategy. “Historically, it’s a pastoral population that is traditionally used to mobilization”, according to Bon. Where the first waves of migrants went to Europe, latter day migrants are gradually changing this trend, and are just as likely to head to West, to Brazil.

But how do they get there? As the crow flies, the distance between the Senegalese capital Dakar and the nearest point on the Brazilian mainland is around 3,000 kilometres, the same distance as between Dakar and Gibraltar.

Experts say there are two main routes, each bringing different cost considerations and risks. The cheapest – and the most common until a few years ago – was to go via Ecuador. People would then hire human smugglers to help them enter Brazil through the Amazon forest, “facing the most unimaginable kind of deprivations” according to Flavio Lima Rocha, the Brazilian ambassador in Senegal.

What is becoming more popular is a safer, but more expensive, way of making the journey to the Americas. Once they are granted a tourist visa for Brazil, Senegalese migrants simply take an airplane and arrive in major cities like Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo.

Smugglers use money transfer agencies to be paid for organising fake documents and visas in Thouba, Senegal, on September 14, 2017. (Photo: Santiago Carrión)

Sissé (R), 40, works as a lumberjack in Thouba, Senegal, on September 14, 2017. It's Senegal's second largest city. He's not even sure about the name of the city in Brazil his son went to. Like many others, his son used a local “agency” to help with his travel, but he has not been able to get in touch with him since he left. (Photo: Santiago Carrión)

Sissé (R), 40, works as a lumberjack in Thouba, Senegal, on September 14, 2017. It's Senegal's second largest city. He's not even sure about the name of the city in Brazil his son went to. Like many others, his son used a local “agency” to help with his travel, but he has not been able to get in touch with him since he left. (Photo: Santiago Carrión)


The key issue with this strategy, however, lies in who is granted a visa. Ambassador Rocha says that most of the tourist visa applications at the Brazilian embassy in Dakar are rejected by the consular authority. The reason? Fake documents.

“Most of the time, we don’t even have to perform a very strict check on the applications. Some 99 per cent of documents presented to us contain something fake. We check with banks and local authorities,” says Rocha.

But there is also a vast network of people working to try and circumvent the system, offering, for a fee, a way into Brazil. This journey may start somewhere as everyday as the small kiosk operating international money transfers, some of which offer to “facilitate” the process of acquiring visas to places like Brazil, even arranging “accommodation” after arrival.

That was the case for the brother of “A”, a 33-year-old migrant from Thouba who went to Brazil two years ago. He paid the owner of a small business offering Western Union, Money Gram and Wari money transfer services some 2 million CFA, around $3,600 USD for “visa processing”, tickets and six weeks accommodation in Sao Paulo.

It was claimed that the store-owner had connections in the Brazilian embassy which would make the process easier, although this claim was strictly denied by the Ambassador, who says that in the cut-throat market for migrant money people will tell travellers anything to persuade them to use their services.

But whoever was behind it, the deal worked, “A”’s brother got his visa, entered the country and now sends money when he can to his wife and son who are still in Senegal.

With the information on how this so-called “demarche des visas” – or illicit visa processing – worked, we travelled five hours along a dusty congested road to Thouba, to a small house with a front yard just beside the money transfer kiosk, and coincidentally, in front of a police station. Since this market operates by word of mouth, you need precise names and addresses before anyone will talk to you. I told them I was trying to help a Senegalese friend get to Brazil so he could be reunited with his brother, who had used their services in the past, but they were suspicious.

“Someone told you we do this here? Who told you we do this here? What is the name of the person you are searching for? A lot of people do this thing here, I need to know exactly with whom you want to speak with. You can not come here like this,” the woman who received us shouted.

Asking around, a man claiming to have contacts in Senegal’s migration services at Dakar’s airport told us that for 400 euros ($470 USD) he could introduce us to “people helping with visas”. “You know this is dangerous, it’s a different business. It’s a gang, you know what a gang is? A lot of people are involved. People at the airport, police… You know?” he said.

The “demarche des visas” can work in different ways, the most common is by helping would-be applicants prove that they have money enough to be a credible tourist in Brazil. To pass this test, migrants can present fake documents (and incur in the risk of the embassy checking the bank statements with the bank itself and turning down your application) or have someone put the money temporarily in their bank account during the visa acquisition process, a tactic called “gonfler” (blowing up).

A letter of invitation from a Brazilian citizen also helps in the process so there is a flourishing trade in fake letters and paying for someone to submit one to the Embassy on your behalf, even if they do not know you. 

The “demarche des visas” market can help with fake documents or “real” documents during this process, depending on how much you want to spend. Ambassador Rocha says that they sometimes get calls in the Embassy from the local migration service telling that someone is trying to fly to Brazil with a fake visa, false passport and even Brazilian identity cards.

The difficulties of getting a tourist visa have meant that organized crime organisations have become involved in this migration route, as in many others. Vectors of corruption and the weak rule of law do not help.

Unfair government policies, poor border control, local mafia, and corruption among officials are the main factors fuelling everything that is illegal in during the journey and that occur once migrants cross the Atlantic. In general, most migrants and asylum-seekers will simply play the game which is already in place.

Children playing in a street of Thouba, Senegal, on September 14, 2017. Thouba is Senegal's second largest city and the provincial capital of the region where most of the Senegalese migrants in Latin America come from. (Photo: Santiago Carrión)

Mortala Mbow sell wax print fabric at HLM Market and send the product for his brother in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he also is selling the product. Mbow works in a store at HLM Market in Dakar, Senegal, on September 13, 2017. (Photo: Santiago Carrión)