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.

By , Correspondents of The Christian Science Monitor , Correspondents of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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.

Spain and Mauritania work together

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.

Treating the root of the problem

"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.

One of his success stories is Rotimi Ajanaku, a Nigerian who came to Nouadhibou to set off for Europe, but who was persuaded to rethink his ideas after a chat with the priest and a loan from the church to buy a taxi.

After just five months, he has already paid back the loan and business is booming, as is his entrepreneurial spirit. He's now about to open a DVD rental shop, aimed at the English-speaking Africans living here, where Arabic and French dominate.

It is a small success story in the midst of macabre tales of failed escape and broken dreams, and Father Dukiya acknowledges that his micro-credit scheme is a piecemeal affair because funds are limited.

But he believes it's a better model for turning back the tide of migrants than extra patrol boats and police officers, which, he says, will simply push the problem further south, making the journeys longer and the risks greater.

Spain's Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Jesús Caldera agrees that tighter enforcement alone will not solve the problem.

In a recent press conference, he attributed the immigrant tide to Africa's "misery and desperate conditions," and called for "coordinated, international action to prevent the inequalities between rich and poor countries from growing." Indeed, a key element of the Spanish plan is to involve the EU not only in policing (Spain is in the process of submitting to the EU plans for a database, called the Sea Horse Network, that would track illegal immigration in real time) but in African development as well.

"We have a historic debt with Africa," says Froilán Rodríguez, the Canary Island's vice-councilman for immigration. "We're ethically obliged to help those countries improve their living conditions. And it's also necessary if we're going to reduce clandestine immigration."

Why educated youths risk the voyage, too

NOUADHIBOU, MAURITANIA - Moctar Koulibaly's job at a printing press in Mali put him in the top 10 percent of earners. But then the firm went bankrupt and months of job searching yielded nothing.

"Back home, there's nothing. If I could find a job there, that would be great, but not a chance. I can't tell you how depressing it is to do one training course after another and not be able to find work," the 24-year-old sighs.

So last month, Mr. Koulibaly decided to climb aboard a rickety fishing boat for a 500-mile illicit voyage to Europe. There, he might find a job sweeping the streets.

Rough seas and vigilant coast guards thwarted that plan. But Koulibaly, who sees a stint in Europe as a stepping stone to a decent life back in Africa, is undeterred.

"I know that Europe's not paradise. I just want to go there, gain experience and money, and then bring that back home," he explains.

UN officials have described youth unemployment in West Africa - which exceeds 50 percent in some countries - as a ticking time bomb. Lack of investment due to political instability, corruption, and weak judicial systems, say observers, has led to a shortage of jobs for qualified young people.

Yaya Fall, a young computer technician from Senegal, has tried 20 times in the past year to cross the border between Morocco and Ceuta, the Spanish enclave. Every time, he was unsuccessful.

Mr. Fall's family scrimped for three years to get $5,500 together so that their brightest son could smuggle himself into Europe and become their economic lifeline.

They've watched their neighbors build a new house with money sent from a son who made it to Europe.

"When I have any doubts, all I have to do is look across at that house," Fall says. "It's proof that it's doable."

- Claire Soares

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