Deadly voyage for African emigrants
At least 1,300 Africans died this year on the 500-mile voyage from Mauritania to Spain's Canary Islands.
NOUADHIBOU, MAURITANIA AND MADRID, SPAIN
Africans are taking increasingly dangerous risks as they try to smuggle themselves into Europe in the hope of finding jobs to support families back home.Skip to next paragraph
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Since Morocco tightened its borders under pressure from the European Union, Mauritania has become the new migrant magnet. That means instead of a short hop across the Mediterranean to mainland Spain, would-be migrants are attempting a 500-mile ocean voyage in rickety, open-topped fishing boats to Spain's Canary Islands, a gateway to the rest of Europe.
Some 4,000 Africans have been caught trying to reach the Canaries so far this year - compared to 4,751 for all of 2005. More than 125 people - most from Mali and Senegal - have been detained there in the past week.
"People are taking 10 times the risk to get out. It's like if the door is blocked, you try the window, and if the window's blocked, you try the roof," says Ahmedou Ould Haye, head of the Mauritanian Red Crescent in Nouadhibou.
The Red Crescent estimates that from January to March, at least 1,300 Africans perished trying to make the treacherous trip from this northern port town, where the Sahara desert meets the sea.
But the alarming statistics do nothing to puncture the dream of so many young people from West African countries where unemployment can top 50 percent, familial obligations weigh heavy on sons' shoulders, and excited calls from friends already in Europe dispel any momentary doubts.
"If they can do it then why can't I." says Fode Ndiaye, squatting on the beach and looking out at the turquoise ocean with a mixture of determination and frustration.
Last month the young man from Senegal drifted on those waves for six days. On reaching dry land in Morocco, he was deported back to Senegal but he is already back in Nouadhibou, working on a new plan of action.
But the next time he attempts the journey, he may have to deal with tighter surveillance, following a deal between Mauritania and Spain to try to close this latest back door into Europe.
Later this month, Spain's Civil Guard will start running joint patrols with Mauritanian officers. Sources within the Ministry of the Interior have also told the Spanish newspaper El Pais that they are helping the African nation create "an embryo of a navy" by lending it several boats with which to monitor the coastline.
Yahefdou Ould Amar, the chief of police in Nouadhibou, says that in the past week his officers stopped six clandestine departures, involving some 150 migrants.
Lying listlessly on a canvas bed in the newly opened deportation center - the most visible symbol of the much- publicized Spanish-Mauritanian cooperation - Diame Signate was ruing his luck at being caught in the sweep.
He'd paid more than $1,100 for his clandestine ticket out of Africa, but the police intervened before he could even set foot in the boat.
"I'm starting from zero again, but I'll go home and find new funds. That was only my first go," the accounting student from Senegal declared shortly before he was bussed out of town.
Police officials reckon there are at least 12,000 would-be migrants in and around Nouadhibou, picking their way between the donkey-drawn carts and battered green taxis, waiting for the day of their illicit getaway.
The international spotlight is now firmly on this remote and desolate corner of West Africa and the EU has readied 2 million euros to help Mauritania close the route. But many of the migrants and the humanitarian workers helping them, say the focus is skewed.
"They need to treat the cause not the symptoms. They need to get to the root of the problem, why people are leaving in the first place," says Father Jerome Otitoyomi Dukiya, a Nigerian priest, who tries to convince youngsters here they can earn a living in Africa.