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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.

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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.

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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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