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Africans risk lives to reach Europe

March 29, 2006

NOUADHIBOU (Mauritania): The latest arrival screams in pain as police doctors strip him naked and dab antiseptic on open sores across his back and shoulders. Nine days drifting on the ocean, crammed against the inside of a wooden fishing boat, have flayed Abdoul Aziz Lo’s skin. He hasn’t eaten for a week and what little strength he has, he preserved by drinking sea water mixed with sugar.

Around him, under blankets on the cold police station floor, are dozens of young Africans who have tried to smuggle themselves into Europe, setting out at night in small, open boats from Mauritania’s desolate Atlantic coast. Most failed when they ran out of food and water and were forced to return.

“We were at sea for nine days trying to get to Spain,” said Lo as doctors tried to clean sea salt from his wounds. “There were 52 of us in the pirogue (fishing boat). We had nothing to eat so we had to turn back.”

More than 900 migrants from around sub-Saharan Africa reached Spain’s Canary Islands in one week alone in March, a high enough success rate to encourage thousands more to embark on what they readily acknowledge are suicidal sea crossings.

It is 800 km from the northern Mauritanian port of Nouadhibou to the Canaries, a journey of three or four days for the lucky ones. But many boats get lost and end up at sea for three times that long.

At least a dozen decomposing bodies were found drifting in a fishing boat hundreds of kilometres off the mainland a few weeks ago, while fishermen here have repeatedly brought in corpses plucked from the water.

The Red Cross estimates that more than 1,000 Africans have died trying to reach the Canary Islands already this year, many drowning when their boats sank or starving to death.

Macabre tales do little to deter young men from Senegal, Mali and around West Africa who see reaching Europe as the only way they will earn enough money to support their families.

“Die or succeed is the motto,” said Mamadou Ba, a Senegalese fisherman sitting on the police station floor waiting to be deported after his attempt to reach the Canaries failed.

“If you’re the tough one, the oldest in the family, you have to stand on your own two feet. You can’t sit by and watch your parents, your brothers suffer,” he said, vowing to try again.

Many of the estimated 10,000-15,000 sub-Saharan Africans in Nouadhibou trying to scrape together the 150,000 ouguiya ($550) needed to buy a place on a boat are ready to risk their lives.

Not for the glamour of a European lifestyle, simply to work.

More than two-thirds of the population of West Africa are under 30 years old and unemployment in some countries tops 50 per cent, leaving many with no hope of finding a job.

Those who set out on the illegal route to Europe usually do so with the support of their families, with money given by their parents, uncles or neighbours. Knowing it is more than their own future at stake piles on the pressure.

One muscular young man, exhausted after days at sea, collapsed in sobs at his failure as police brought him in, a rare show of emotion before his travel-hardened compatriots.

“Five or seven people living in the same room back home, sleeping with your father, your mother, your brothers, it’s tough,” said Ibrahima Niass, 24, still wearing the woollen hat and thick jumper he put on for his night-time departure.

“We look at friends who got to Spain. When they come back, they buy a house for their family, all with new furniture, yet they’re the same age as us,” he said.

Travelling by boat from the Mauritanian or Western Saharan coast has become the new route for migrants heading for Europe since Morocco — previously a favoured transit country — tightened its borders under pressure from the European Union.

Some set off to sea from as far south as Senegal, making their way up the Sahara’s sun-blasted Atlantic coast, stopping occasionally to pick up fuel and food from a network of fixers.

One of the last stops before the crossing to the Canaries is often Dakhla in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, where authorities have detained dozens of illegal migrants before dumping them on the heavily mined border with Mauritania.

Western Sahara’s liberation movement Polisario fought years of intermittent guerrilla war to try to win independence for the territory.

“They give (the migrants) a bit of food — some sardines, maybe a bit of cheese, and then they cross on foot,” said Yacoub Djibril, who makes his living guiding people across the 5 km strip of no man’s land which separates the two countries.

Tracing a path over exposed rock and ground that is too hard to conceal an anti-tank or anti-personnel device is the only way to cross safely. The Mauritanian police are waiting for migrants at the other side, but in any case a break for freedom would mean almost certain death.—Reuters