Baye Aly Diop has heard nothing from his son, Cheikou, since shortly after he and 61 others left the Senegalese fishing village of Thiaroye-sur-Mer, near Dakar, in March 2006, with the aim of reaching Europe.

The last contact with his son was a phone call a few days later, when Cheikou said he had reached Mauritania and was about to board a boat to the Canary Islands.

Many thousands of migrants have drowned on that sea – more than 3 000 this year alone. But only recently has any attempt been made to trace the missing.

“He wanted to be more than just a tailor,” said Diop, who now runs a local support group for the families of missing migrants, known as ASCRFAT. “I couldn’t say anything to stop him. He had his own money and, honestly, I wasn’t afraid anything would happen to him.”

The final leg of the journey was expected to last just two or three days. “We never heard from him, or any of them, again,” he said.

Diop and some of the other families believe they saw their loved ones in a video of migrants disembarking – in Spain or Morocco – which was shown on a Euronews newscast in May – many weeks after the boat should have arrived.

“I think it’s possible he’s still living,” Diop said.

He maintains hope, as there was never any news of a sunken boat or drowned migrants around the time his son left. “But it hurts me. I kept calling and calling and calling (Spain), trying to find him.”

WAITING FOR HIS SON TO RETURN: Baye Aly Diop, the president of the Association for Repatriated Illegal Immigrants, looks out across the ocean in Thiaroye, Senegal. More than nine years ago, his son took a boat bound for Europe and Diop has not heard from him since. Picture: Ricci Shryock / IRIN
There are no figures on how many Senegalese go missing while trying to migrate each year, but according to the International Organisation for Migration there have been 1 026 reported deaths in the Mediterranean among migrants from sub-Saharan Africa since the beginning of the year.

The Red Crescent Society in Mauritania estimates that about 40 percent of boats carrying migrants sank around the time Cheikou tried to make the crossing, with 1 200 people dying between November 2005 and April 2006.

Diop, like most other families in the community, never held a funeral.

Only on the tenth anniversary of the disappearances will the families finally have a commemorative ceremony and accept that their loved ones are gone. ”It’s a real problem if a person doesn’t come back,” said Nicolas Mendy, who runs the Senegalese Red Cross’s psychosocial support programme for the families of missing migrants.

“Families put their lives on hold believing they will return and we can’t say anything because it’s their belief. All we can do is listen and try to help them through the trauma.”

The Red Cross now holds weekly counselling sessions for the families of missing migrants. They also offer literacy classes and entrepreneurial business training for women, who are often the most affected when their husbands never return.

Beyond the emotional trauma of not knowing the fate of the migrants, and the financial strain many families are left with after losing their main breadwinner, most are also caught in a legal limbo, unable to prove their son, daughter, spouse, parent or sibling has died.

Without a death certificate, which can only be issued with proof of a body, widows can’t remarry, orphaned children can’t apply for special scholarships at school, and families can’t legally claim or process inheritances.

Or at least not easily.

“There are lots of holes in the law when it comes to missing migrants,” said Bara Ndoye, the secretary- general of ASCRFAT, which helps families navigate the legal system.

Senegalese law allows for a “declaration of disappearance” certificate when no body has been found. But this requires a long, complicated legal process and investigations, and an extensive knowledge of the law, or the means to afford a lawyer. It is only after 10 years that a “missing persons” certificate can be issued.

In Thiaroye, just 5 percent of families have been able to obtain such a certificate. Most say they never registered the disappearance, as they were unsure of the process, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“We’re trying to get the legislation changed, to make it easier to receive a certificate of disappearance,” Ndoye said.

More than 90 percent of Senegalese are Muslim and many marriages are not registered with the state authorities. Under Islamic law here, a woman must wait at least four years before declaring her missing husband dead. Only then can she choose to ask the imam for permission to divorce or remarry.

Even so, many wives of missing migrants hold out hope.

“I dream, every day, that my husband will return,” said Fatou, a 32-year-old mother of two, whose husband also disappeared in 2006.

“I didn’t want him to go.

“I can’t believe he would just leave me and our children, but I also can’t believe he is dead.”

Diop said remarrying was a difficult choice for many women.

“If she does and her husband comes back one day, it’s a problem.”

Voulymata, who’s in her 60s, says her son, who was unmarried, and her daughter’s husband are among the missing from 2006.

“My daughter sometimes had the idea to remarry, but she is still waiting. She didn’t even move to a new house, in case her husband came back and couldn’t find her. Even today, we are still praying for their return,” she said. – Irin.

HOMEBOUND: Would-be migrants, who failed to reach Europe, wait at a migrant centre in Niamey, Niger, to be repatriated. Picture: Boureima Balima / IRIN
Many do not even reach the coast

NIAMEY: When Koné Kabiné, 26, left his home in Ivory Coast’s capital, Abidjan, six months ago, he never thought he would end up at a migrant centre in Niger with serious injuries, about to return to the very place he so badly wanted to escape.

Kabiné had long dreamed of making his way to Europe and earning his fortune, as he heard so many of his friends and neighbours had done before him.

“Once I lost my job, I couldn’t keep living without work,” he said.

After months of planning and saving, Kabiné sold his last valuable possession: a car he had painstakingly rebuilt years ago at the auto repair shop where he used to work. Then, with the blessing of his family, he climbed onto a bus with just a few belongings. Hidden in various pockets was all the cash he had managed to scrape together.

The bus took Kabiné more than 2 500km: north through Ivory Coast, then east through Burkina Faso and on to the migrant hub of Agadez in central Niger. From there, he hoped to continue northwards into Libya before finding a boat to take him across the Mediterranean to Italy. Like countless West African migrants before him, Kabiné never reached his final destination.

A traffic accident – something all too common in the region – resulted in the car he was travelling in rolling over multiple times somewhere shy of the Libyan border.

“I lost a lot of blood and fell into a coma,” recalled Kabiné, who also broke both his legs in the crash.

Eventually escorted back to the Nigerien capital Niamey by friends of friends who had heard about the accident, he was taken to a migrant centre run by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

“When he was brought to us, he couldn’t even walk,” said Douada Mahamadou, who manages the centre. With the support of the IOM, who helped him make contact with relatives back home, and after more than a month recovering from his injuries, Kabiné is about to return to Abidjan along with dozens of other Ivoirian migrants who also failed to reach Europe.

Since the beginning of the year, more than 5 600 people who tried to migrate to Europe have been returned to their countries of origin from Niamey, said Paloma Casaseca, a programme assistant for the IOM.

“This number is double that of last year. These are essentially people who failed in their journey, either because of lack of resources or health issues, or as a result of expulsions by the host country.”

The IOM estimates that more than 100 000 West Africans will cross Niger this year on their way to Europe. But many don’t even reach the coasts of places like Algeria, Libya or Morocco to try their luck on the perilous boat journeys.

Vast expanses of sand make for difficult access routes, particularly aboard old pickup trucks and other dilapidated vehicles. When a car breaks down, passengers often die of dehydration before they can be rescued. Those who are found are sometimes sent back home. Others are forced into hard labour or prostitution by the smugglers. – Irin