The West African returnees using film to flip script on migration

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This year’s IOM Global Migration Film Festival highlights the work of returnees exploring the complexities of migration.

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Dakar, Senegal – The last thing Asata Rivera remembers before she woke up in a Moroccan hospital was her friend Khadija – a young mother – trembling helplessly as she drifted across the Mediterranean. The flying boat on which they were trying to cross the sea capsized. Ndiaye was one of only a few who managed to get it back on board.


Ndiaye, who was only 21 at the time, paid a woman more than a million CFA francs (about $1,700) to fly from Tangiers to Spain. She looked forward to attending university once she arrived.

“I’ve lived through a lot of pain,” said Rivera. “I dreamed of traveling the world, and I did it, but not the way I wanted to.”

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Every year, thousands of people travel from different parts of sub-Saharan Africa to find resourceful ways to cross into Europe in search of a better life and to escape conflict and persecution.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), nearly 2,400 people died or disappeared while trying to immigrate to Europe in the first nine months of this year – more than in the entire previous year. Around 1,200 deaths were recorded on the route from Libya to Italy. Others end up stranded in labor camps or random locations in remote parts of North Africa.

On average, more than half of Mediterranean crossings are unsuccessful.

Asata Rivers speaking with guests at the Global Migration Film Festival opening at a rooftop bar in the Dakar Plateau neighborhood [Portia Crowe/Al Jazeera]

On his visit to the river in 2019, four of his friends died. He found himself alone and said he was tortured in Morocco, then deported to Algeria where he was beaten up and deported to Niger. Eventually, she managed to return to Senegal with the help of the IOM.

Now, the 23-year-old, along with many other refugees and asylum seekers, has turned to film to explore the complexities of migration. His work is in the spotlight at this year’s IOM Global Migration Film Festival, which is currently being held in 13 countries across West and Central Africa. It runs until 18 December, when the winners will be announced on International Migrants Day.

“We always see images of migration that have been created by Europeans or Americans,” said Tabara Lee Ven, co-producer of La Maison Bleu, a documentary competing in the main category of the festival. “It is absolutely essential that Africans speak for themselves about their stories – that they tell their own experiences.”

For the first time, a special competition is being held for films by people like Ndiaye, who volunteer with IOM’s “Migrants as Messengers” project.

His film, Sous mes pieds (“Under my feet”), was shown at a community screening last weekend in Dakar’s Yerrax neighborhood, where the informal outdoor venue was filled with children and youth.

“Cinema has the advantage of urgency,” said Maguey Kasse, a Senegalese art critic who selected the film festival’s jury. “It confronts you, it shocks you with an image, and the image makes you think.”

A photography exhibition at the opening of the film festival shows work by migrants as messenger volunteers as part of their outreach campaign [Portia Crowe/Al Jazeera]

The idea behind the Migrants as Messengers initiative is to use peer-to-peer messaging from returned migrants, rather than address potential mistrust for institutional messaging. The program trains volunteers in photography, theatre, journalism and video production, and works with them to start conversations in their communities.

The IOM has said that the aim is not to discourage people from traveling, but to raise awareness about the risks of irregular migration and promote safer routes. Christopher Gascon, the organisation’s regional director for West and Central Africa, knows this is not always realistic.

“While you’re working [with] Frustration, it’s so hard to say, ‘Oh, why don’t you look for a regular route?'” he said. “There are routine options to travel, but they all have to do with how well-prepared you are. , and it has to do with development and education.”

Still, he wants to inform people about “what awaits out there.”

Migration became a hot-button issue again in Europe recently, when thousands gathered on Belarus’s border with Poland, camping outside in the cold. This week, at least 27 people drowned in the English Channel when their canoe capsized during an attempt from France.

And for those who make it, things aren’t usually easy.

In 2017 a Malian, Zeidy Dabo, traveled to Italy with his wife and three children, but they 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.

Mantoule director and returnee Fatou Guet Nadia answers audience questions when his film was screened at the festival’s opening [Portia Crowe/Al Jazeera]

Although his family now lives in a safe haven, and his children are in school and doing well, he does not recommend the route he has taken. “I would not encourage anyone to cross the Mediterranean Sea – not even my worst enemy,” Dabo said.

Refugees and asylum seekers also face stigma when they return home. Fato Guet Nadia, who directed the film Mantoule, said that he had to repeat a school year after his journey.

As a teenager, she boarded a wooden fishing boat bound for the Canary Islands, but had to return six days after the captain was lost. His parents were devastated.

“They scolded me – they even hit me – because they said it was not right for a girl in her last year of high school to leave it all and go to Spain … in a pirogue with the boys,” she said.

As far as Asta Nadiye is concerned, who says that she wanted to be a filmmaker since childhood, she hopes the film festival will help her make 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 off her talent” to the world.

“I know I will continue to focus on migration,” she said. “I have many things to say about migration; It’s so vast, so vague, there’s so much to tell.”


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