Babylon, Here We Come...

17 November: Polish forces use tear gas and water cannon to force back migrants attempting to cross into the EU from Belarus. NATO moves troops to assist.

20 November: UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel, reportedly plans to introduce Greek-style draconian detention centres for migrants to deter Channel crossings.

Senegal, September 2018. The car started playing up soon after we crossed the border into Senegal's Casamance province, a warning light on the dashboard that we all ignored. We were just happy to have got past an obstructive secret policeman on the Gambian side who had held us up for two long hours. Eventually, however, we were bouncing down a red dirt road into Senegal, full of relieved laughter - until we heard the grinding noise coming from the engine.

The driver was frankly astonished. This car was almost new and had never, absolutely never, caused any problems. Had it not crossed the Sahara having been brought from Europe? Had it not successfully completed 300,000 kilometres of reliable service? It was indeed a mystery, but it would have to be attended to.

We pulled into the first service area that we could find: a flat patch of beaten black earth in front of a tin shack, the sort of place you find in most of Africa. Next to the shack were the remains of some cars that, to my eye, looked like scrap. There was a small generator and an air line under the dappled shade of a palm leaf roof. Next door was a girl selling baobab juice from a plastic canister.

As soon as we pulled in a horde of barefoot youths in oily jeans and tee shirts ran over and threw up the bonnet. The smallest of them was soon squatting on the wing smacking at some recalcitrant component with a ball hammer. Others hauled wiring out the way and unscrewed nuts that had never moved in their entire lives. That required lots of hammering. The hands of all the youths looked ancient and tough, but I estimated the age range at around 15 to 25. Finally a gruesome lump of dirty metal was lifted free and carried off. The culprit had been identified.

"It's the alternator," said the driver. "They will try and fix it. If they can, we will be okay. If not..."

One of the older youths was now working on it. The rest of the gang sat down on old tyres and lit cigarettes that the driver handed round. Tiny glasses of foaming black tea, ataya, arrived for us.

"You come from Babylon?" asked one, waving at me. The question had to be repeated a few times, then explained. Babylon was Europe, but not exactly. Was it Paris? No. Well, maybe a little, for some. No, real Babylon, proper Babylon, was London.

"Then I'm not from Babylon."

"Manchester United?"

Close enough. There was lots of laughing and slapping among them. The foreigner was from Babylon. The young man who had started the conversation, Aba was his name, now stood up, as though taking the floor for an announcement.

"Cut me open." He faced me, lifting his grubby tee shirt to reveal his chest. "Open me up and you will find 'Babylon' written on my heart." We all laughed. Aba had style, and also a hint of steely determination.

My Senegalese guide, Senay, pointed out that many who head for Europe end up as slaves in Libya, or drowned in sinking pirogues off the Canary Islands.

"Why do you want to go?" I asked. "It's much nicer here. Sunshine. Fruit." I pointed at the mango trees across the road.

They all laughed hard at this. Aba tried to explain. "When Eid' comes, a man has to buy a sheep, but if the sheep is too small, his neighbours will laugh at him and his wife will criticise him. We here, we are the buyers of small sheep."

 The youths worked hard, but the money was pitiful - just enough for survival. There were no opportunities to progress. If there was ever any excess cash, their families would soak it up instantly, and there was constant pressure on them to go to Babylon. People saw young men coming back with lots of money. Those who had stayed at home felt like failures.

I looked at them. They could fix vehicles - hopefully - and with a minimum of tools. They could charm a cigarette out of anyone's pocket. Every one of them spoke at least three languages fluently, a few could get by in six. All along the coast it had been obvious how strength, beauty, creativity and intelligence were abundantly available in Senegal, and in fabulous quantities. Even the old slave island of Gorée had been transformed into an artistic bonanza. Europe, you might think, would do well to harness this pool of willing labour, having previously harnessed it when unwilling.

"How many of you plan to go to Babylon?"

Five of them cheered. One gave a shrug and sauntered off to pray among the wrecked cars.

The others had clearly done their research. They knew the prices and the risks. Friends were constantly heading off. Some made it to Babylon; some were never heard of again. I couldn't help but think of the history of this coast: slave ships moored offshore, markets filled with people.

"But we don't care," said Aba. "I would rather die on that journey than stay here. I will go soon..." he slapped his chest melodramatically, "Barça ou barsak." That was a Wolof proverb, they explained, roughly translated as, 'Barcelona or Death'. Their European geography, and hierarchy of desirability, seemed to be mainly based on football. I wondered to what extent the British Premier League was inadvertantly propelling this human tide.

Aba moved closer. "Take me with you." He wrote down a telephone number. His face was furrowed and angry. His determination suddenly seemed a bit threatening. The others cast anxious looks at him. I stepped away from him, muttering the usual platitudes, "Not today. Maybe next time." I strolled off down the street and bought a glass of baobab juice. Aba was the wild card and I wondered what would become of him, if that single-minded obsession went unsatisfied.

Later, after we had shared out more cigarettes and said goodbye, we made it to my hotel on the coast. Casamance had suffered an insurrectionist war that grumbled along for twenty years. Now it was over and the hope was that tourists would come. But this hotel seemed an unlikely venue for a renaissance. There were too many failed buildings: concrete walls rotting in the undergrowth, abandoned after a long-forgotten previous period of optimism.

Next morning I go down on the beach and walk for miles. This is what tourists might come for: vast expanses of empty sand and swaying palm trees. Eventually I reach a fishing village where gangs of men are landing hefty wooden pirogues with brightly painted hulls. Fish, however, seem in short supply. "There are too many big ships out there," complains one youth.

He is correct. Chinese, Russian and European trawlers have targetted West Africa as a rich fishing ground. A single mega-trawler can suck up around 20,000 tons of fish a year, most of it going to make animal feed and oil. It's an amount that around 1,700 traditional wooden pirogues might manage, but they would help feed the 600,000 Senegalese people who rely on the industry. As a result of foreign fishing, many Senegalese are struggling with children taken out of school. The older ones simply set off on that dangerous journey to Europe. There have been protests. An FAO report from 2019 recorded that six out of seven major species of fish were either fully or over-exploited. The EU is a major market for the fish oil and Greenpeace recently stopped a Norwegian tanker carrying 4,500 tonnes of fish oil to France.

Next day I visit a larger town. The beach is frantic with activity, but the vibe is unfriendly, even hostile when they see my camera. I wander away to a quieter place and find, among the palm trees and hanging fishing nets, a friendlier man who is carving an exquisite figure using only a hand axe. It's a level of artistry and technique that exhibitors in Tate Modern or MoMA might hope one day to attain. "I do build boats," he tells me, "But this is what I really like to do."

Eventually I leave him and head back to town. Behind the beach, huge pirogues are being built: impressive traditional craft, but much larger than anything I've seen before. I talk to one man who is working on one of them and he agrees that new boats are getting bigger.

"To reach further out," he tells me, "There are no fish close to shore any more." He turns and grins. "And maybe it can go to the Canary Islands too." All around us, sitting on the boats are young men and boys, most dressed in old shorts and tee shirts. I suspect that most of them, perhaps all of them, are just waiting for this vessel to be completed.