THIAROYE-SUR-MER, Senegal — The fishing village has long sent its men to sea, but after foreign trawlers scraped the bottom clean, the men began coming back empty-handed. It has long sent its men abroad for work, too, but their luck is often no better.
Last November, when El Hadji Macoura Diop, a 37-year-old fisherman, failed to reach Europe by boat, he could not bring himself to call his wife and tell her he was giving up. “I knew it would just destroy her,” he said.
Hard as it is to leave home for an unknown land and an uncertain future, coming back, migrants say, can be even harder. Often, they feel ashamed to admit defeat, especially to families that may have scrimped to raise money for their trip. And they struggle to reintegrate into the societies they left behind.
In 2010, when he was 19, Yaya Guindo fled his life herding cattle in a small farming village in Ivory Coast. Last winter, after eight years on the road working in construction and at restaurants, he returned, broken and defeated, from a detention center in Libya.
He tried to go home, he said, but his friends mocked him. “I didn’t have anything,” he said. “I was embarrassed.”
The experiences of Mr. Diop and Mr. Guindo are far from unusual. Researchers estimate that one out of four people who migrate in search of opportunity return to their country of birth — some by choice, others not.
Just since 2017, the International Organization for Migration has helped more than 62,000 migrants return to 13 countries in West and Central Africa, transported on charter flights and buses arranged by the agency. Many said they wanted to go home after being detained in abysmal conditions in Libyan detention centers, like one in Tajoura that was bombed in early July, killing more than 50 people.
Once back, they are offered help reintegrating, including temporary shelter, pocket money, job training and psychological counseling.
“These people left for a reason, and if you don’t address that, they will keep dying at sea,” said Florence Kim, a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration, which runs the program. “If you give people what they needed in the first place, they don’t need to take the risks.”
The organization placed Mr. Guindo in a training program as a restaurant worker in a trendy neighborhood of Abidjan, the largest city in Ivory Coast. Other returning migrants have been given training as carpenters, tailors or shopkeepers.
But after the initial support, the migrants are on their own.
“We’re trying not to create a parallel system where migrants who are coming back to their country would have better service than Ivorians who chose not to leave,” Lavinia Prati, a reintegration officer for the International Organization for Migration.
The transition can be rocky.
Mr. Guindo, for example, has angered his employers by skipping work to play basketball for a local club. He says he needs to maintain good relations with the club because it is giving him housing in exchange for playing.
Yet as hard as it is to adjust, Mr. Guindo said he was staying put.
“I saw people dying of hunger, I saw women raped, men beheaded,” he said. “What I saw, what I lived, what I heard — I would not leave again.”
Another returnee to Ivory Coast, Jessica Kablan, 27, came back seven months pregnant by a man she had turned to for protection on the road. Although the nature of the relationship was intrinsically coercive, it seemed to her the best choice she could make under the circumstances. When her boyfriend back home — who had helped pay for her trip — realized she was pregnant, he ended the relationship.
She does not blame him.
“I came back with a child,” she said. “How could he accept that?”
Meliane Lorng, a psychologist who counsels returning migrants through the International Organization for Migration, says the women with children often don’t tell their families that they are back, “because the infant is the living testimony that they were raped.”
Uncounted other migrants, like the fisherman, have returned on their own, without the help of humanitarian agencies.
Thiaroye-sur-Mer has been a major source of migration for more than a decade. Hundreds of men have tried to reach Europe — mainly Spain. Everyone knows the migrant motto, “Barca ou barzakh”: Wolof for “Barcelona or die.”
Some make it. Some die trying. And some return, said Moustapha Diouf, himself a returned migrant, who created a community center for them.
To the outsider, Thiaroye-sur-Mer can seem like an idyllic place, not somewhere people would be eager to leave: Men sit on the beach, mending their nets, while children play in the surf. But when they do come back home, migrants often get a stark reminder of why they left in the first place.
One recent day, Mr. Diop, the fisherman who abandoned his attempt to reach Europe, and his five partners came back to shore with about 100 small silver fish called sardinella in their nets. Once the owner of the boat got his share, they would earn about a dollar each, he said.
There was a time when some migrants setting off in hopes of a better life left right from the shores of the village by pirogue, the colorfully painted wooden canoes used for fishing. More recently, the grapevine has advised them to go by air to Morocco, where Senegalese do not need visas, and then catch passage across the Mediterranean with a smuggler.
From the roofs of the village houses, the view of the ocean goes on forever. It is easy to imagine that Europe might be just beyond the horizon. And it is possible to forget, if only for a moment, the many dangers of the journey.
Often, it is the women who encourage the men to migrate.
Mr. Diop’s mother, Fatou Ndaw, 55, chose him to go because he was the oldest of three brothers, and a fisherman. “He was the one who knows how to read the signs of the ocean,” she said.
Mr. Diop tried twice.
On his first attempt, in 2006, he headed for the Canary Islands. Along the way, he watched as six people from his village died after bouts of vomiting and dehydration, their bodies tossed overboard with a prayer.
Mr. Diop landed, but he was deported two days before an uncle living in Spain arrived to claim him, he said.
To pay for his second attempt, last fall, Mr. Diop’s mother sold her jewelry; his wife, Mbayang Hanne, saved the money that she earned frying doughnuts under a tent on the beach and selling them with coffee.
Mr. Diop bought a round-trip plane ticket to Casablanca, where he did not need a visa and could stay with a childhood friend. From there, he took a bus to Tangier and boarded a boat for Spain.
This time, his boat was stopped before it reached international waters. Mr. Diop says he was fingerprinted and dropped at the Algerian border. He walked 16 hours with other migrants until a car picked them up and took them to Casablanca.
In Casablanca, the weather was bad and the boats were not running. He slept on the street in the rain. His round-trip ticket on Royal Air Maroc was expiring in two days. Homesick and miserable, Mr. Diop called his parents. They advised him to use the ticket to return home.
He spent some sleepless nights agonizing over whether to call his wife, and decided not to.
At the airport back in Dakar, he did not even have enough money for a taxi. A stranger took pity on him and drove him home.
To Mr. Diop’s relief, his wife was out when he got there — but all that did was put off the inevitable. When she returned, she was shocked to find him in the house.
It was hard to explain why he had failed when so many others had succeeded. Some of his neighbors, Mr. Diop felt, were judging him. But others told him it was not his fault.
“Europe doesn’t belong to anybody,” he recalled their telling him. “If God decides, one day you’ll have breakfast in Europe. Never give up.”
And he has not. Mr. Diop says he is not discouraged by deaths he has seen on the migrant path. It is simply part of the risk, he says.
He and his family are saving for him to leave again.