HIV/AIDS Interviews

Spotlight on Mody Guiro (CNTS-Senegal) and Mamadou Niang (CGTM-Mauritania)

“Get there or die”

“Get there or die”

Brussels, 14 May 2007: The ITUC-sponsored trade union partnership agreement between the Confédération nationale des travailleurs du Sénégal (CNTS) and the Confédération générale des travailleurs de Mauritania (CGTM) should ensure that more attention is paid to the rights of the large numbers of migrant workers living in and passing through Senegal and Mauritania.

The trade union partnership you are launching has a dramatic back-drop, with a flood of African boat people risking their lives by crossing the coastal waters of Senegal and Mauritania on their way to the Canary Islands…

Mody Guiro (CNTS): Yes, as a result of the tightening of border controls in the Mediterranean region (1), our own West African Atlantic coastline is attracting huge numbers of would-be emigrants. It is indeed a terrifying business: in 2006 tens of thousands of young Africans took to the seas in makeshift craft (2) buoyed only by their motto: “get there or die”.

Mamadou Niang (CGTM): We would never have imagined there would be such numbers. It’s true that Mauritania has around 800 kilometres of coastline and opposite us are the Canary Islands, i.e. Europe, but in fact it’s a mirage. Many of these frail craft run aground on our shores, whilst others are blown into the ocean, where they end up capsizing. This is a daily drama that is fuelled by all sorts of middlemen and smugglers with very tough methods. In the port town of Nouadhibou, migrants are crowded together in very precarious conditions trying to find ways of surviving and opportunities for risking the voyage. Europe, on the other hand, and principally Spain are trying to stem the influx of new undocumented immigrants. Based on an existing readmission agreement between Spain and Mauritania, the Spanish government wanted to set up some “outposts”, i.e. camps that undocumented immigrants who had been intercepted would have to stay in before being sent back to their countries. But Mauritania refused to do this. It is not a good solution from either a humanitarian or a political perspective. Our leaders do not want to poison their relations with neighbouring countries. There is, in fact, one reception camp for Senegalese nationals awaiting repatriation, but that was negotiated with the Senegalese authorities. We do not want to reopen old wounds. We need to devise some global strategies instead. The European Union is counting on FRONTEX (3) to secure the borders. In recent months logistical assistance helped reduce a certain amount of undocumented immigration but the influx has by no means been halted. The recent dramatic events concerning the boat “Marine I”, which left Guinea for the Canaries with 400 undocumented immigrants on board, and which Mauritania allowed to land on its shores for humanitarian reasons whilst the repatriation of the migrants was arranged, is a particularly shocking example (4).

You allude to the racial dispute between Senegal and Mauritania a few years back, which ended up showing how inextricably linked the people in the two countries are. Doesn’t this also show that Senegal and Mauritania are primarily host countries, as well as being transit countries for would-be emigrants?

Mamadou Niang: Yes, there is a long tradition of migration between our two countries. We share a very long border formed by the Senegal River. The people living there often have fields on either side of the river and continually move between them. The crisis of 1989 started out as a dispute between two farmers. Both countries suffered violence and wide-scale expulsion of workers and their families. As a result no more pirogues were allowed to cross the river and any that tried to do so were targeted by the coastguards.

But setting that aside, both countries offer job prospects. Until recently, a large percentage of small shops in Senegal were run by Mauritanians. Owing to our poor education system, many Mauritanian students go to universities in Senegal. They often have to fund their studies by working. In Mauritania there are many Senegalese in the mining, construction, fishing and mechanical engineering sectors and in all sorts of small trades that Mauritanians are not qualified to do. If you also include cultural matters, like the religious ceremonies that involve returning to the home country, you can see just how interconnected our nations are and how vital it is to improve our relations. Some new freedom of movement agreements were signed in 2006. Economic missions in the two countries should lead to new contracts and new jobs. The circumstances are favourable. There is already a democratic tradition in Senegal, and in Mauritania one is now emerging, notably following the democratic transition that enabled the first free and transparent Presidential elections to be held in March.

What are the concrete aims of your trade union partnership, which you signed in August 2006?

Mody Guiro: Firstly, this partnership should enable us to get more involved in managing migratory flows, whilst developing our expertise in helping migrants and not leaving everything to our governments. We need to keep an eye on what is happening. Conflicts are springing up all the time. Last year we asked our colleagues in Mauritania for help in solving a border dispute that was threatening to get out of hand: lorry drivers were fed up with the irritating administrative and police formalities they were coming up against after a bilateral agreement had expired but not been renewed. After an exchange of faxes between our two organisations, we both asked our respective Economic ministers quickly to renew the agreement, which they did. A similar crisis arose on the border with Mali, and was solved in the same way. We can do a lot and the unions are some of the best qualified organisations for tackling immigration issues. We are aware of the many issues involved in the world of work and use our networks with our affiliates, organisations in other countries and, of course, the ITUC.
One of the challenges is to put pressure on our respective governments to integrate “migrants” better in national legislation. Neither Senegal nor Mauritania have so far ratified ILO conventions 97 and 143, which directly cover migration. Both countries have signed UN Convention 90. Apart from that, both legislative systems currently fail to address the issue of migrant labour.

What statistics can you use for your work on migratory flows?

Mamadou Niang: The official statistics minimise the scale of the problem. We need to quantify these migratory flows – both for transit or longer stays – and that is one of the priorities for our partnership work. We need to make an effort to get to know the migrants, via the right channels, and get them to accept us, so that we can learn how they are living and try to organise them. With the ITUC’s support we will quickly set up some information offices. The project coordinator will be based in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania. We also plan to set up some recruitment offices for regulating migrant labour legally, by providing information on ways of obtaining temporary contracts in Europe, bearing in mind labour market constraints and the demand for seasonal labour, for example in Spanish agriculture.

Mody Guiro: I would add that it is crucial to be able to exchange information between our two organisations, though also with other trade unionists sharing the same concerns at international meetings such as those run by the ITUC. We can learn a lot from each other. Ultimately, migration issues have much in common whether in West Africa or Western industrialised countries.
Migrants often arrive with unsuitable qualifications and no knowledge of the national legislation, and are forced to accept tough jobs with no contracts or protection. We need to help trade union organisations in their task of defending all workers.

Does that include fighting prejudice and discriminatory attitudes?

Mamadou Niang: Yes, we need to combat discrimination by raising workers’ awareness. It is too easy to say that jobs are threatened by foreigners. There is some hard work to be done in this area, including with some union leaders. Xenophobia is a reality. We have also lodged a complaint with the ILO to get rid of a discriminatory clause in the Mauritanian Labour Code which prevents foreign nationals from holding trade union leadership posts if they do not have five years’ seniority in their profession.

Your partnership agreement also mentions that women’s rights need to be promoted better. Do you agree that trade union cooperation on migration is one of the best ways of jointly addressing issues affecting the whole labour movement?

Mamadou Niang: Everything is linked. The structural adjustment programmes and globalisation have exacerbated the dislocation of families and thrown mothers onto the streets in a daily search for a means of survival. Some women have no choice but to leave their children at home while they go off to do seasonal work abroad. The women go back but it is destabilising. We need to find strategies for providing alternatives. We also need to address other issues, such as health and safety. Just look at the number of accidents in Mauritania in the building industry, which provides work to many Senegalese. AIDS is also closely linked to immigration. The epidemic has not grown very much here (it affects under one percent of the population), but we have identified some regions where it is particularly bad, such as the Assaba region, which is a transit area for many small traders who regularly travel to Central Africa. So there is a need for some awareness-raising and preventive work here.

Exchanging information can be very valuable here too. The policy of combating HIV/AIDS in Senegal is a good example …

Mody Guiro: Yes, we have some experience of campaigning against HIV/AIDS in the unions that we should share with our neighbours. At our last Congress we set up a medical stand, which many colleagues used for having check-ups. That type of initiative pays dividends. We should certainly help each other, since it’s no good relying on ourselves. In addition to this partnership there is international cooperation. At regional level, we have ECOWAS (2) and there is an agreement on free movement of persons. The borders are open and a Guinean or a Burkinan only needs an identity card to cross into the various member states. Our own joint border should soon be getting a bridge across the Senegal River in Rosso, the first Mauritanian town on the other side of the river. It’s a good symbol!

Interview by Jacky Delorme and Natacha David

(1) Following the tragic events in Ceuta and Melilla in 2005, Morocco stepped up its struggle against the trafficking of undocumented immigrants, under pressure from the European Union. Sub-Saharan undocumented immigrants then tried to travel by the sea furthest to the south, starting on the coasts of Mauritania and Senegal and aiming to reach the Canary Iles.

(2) In 2006, more than 31,000 undocumented migrants from Western Africa managed to reach the Canaries. But at least 5,000 others died at sea.

(3) Since August 2006 the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union, or FRONTEX has been patrolling the coasts of Mauritania, Senegal and Cape Verde to intercept the pirogues and send them back to where they started from. In less than one year, over 6,000 undocumented immigrants intercepted at sea have been forced to return to their ports of departure. When they reach the Canaries, FRONTEX also makes arrangements for identifying migrants in order to repatriate them to their countries of origin.

(4) Last December, Marine I with 400 undocumented immigrants on board, including many Asians, broke down during the crossing between Spanish and Mauritanian waters. The boat drifted at sea for 12 days while Spain and Mauritania argued about what to do. Mauritania finally agreed to let the ship land at the port of Nouadhibou to allow the Spanish the time they needed to organise the repatriation of the would-be immigrants, mainly to India and Cape Verde. A group of Spanish NGOs criticised the opaqueness of the repatriation procedures and filed a complaint against the Spanish government for violating international conventions protecting the rights of immigrants and people in danger at sea. Given the diplomatic ramifications of this case, the United Nations is now concerned that should another humanitarian crisis of this type arise, no-one will want to get involved.

(5) The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has no longer included Mauritania since 2001.

Please also read the ITUC press release “Trade unions endorse action plan to defend migrant rights” (15 December 2006).

Please also read this interview about the partnership between Malaysian and Indonesian trade unions for protecting migrant workers

Founded on 1 November 2006, the ITUC represents 168 million workers in 153 countries and territories and has 304 national affiliates.

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