February 13, 2006

Africans risk all to breach fortress Europe

By Nick Tattersall

DAKAR, Senegal (Reuters) - Massaer Niang had been praying he would be caught when Spanish border guards dragged him, struggling for breath, out of the rough waters off North Africa.

Like thousands of migrants who try to break into "fortress Europe" each year, the 24-year-old Senegalese student had hidden between the carriages of goods trains, been beaten by police and shot at during repeated attempts to get out of Africa.

In the cold nighttime waters off the heavily guarded border between Morocco and Ceuta, a Spanish enclave and one of the last staging posts on the smuggling route to mainland Europe, Niang's dream of finding work to support his family began to fade.

"This time I wanted to be caught because I thought I was going to die," he said, back in Senegal's capital Dakar after repeatedly being detained in Morocco and eventually deported.

"There were waves which pushed me under each time I came up. There was a strong wind and I was being swept out," said Niang, who does not know how to swim.

Thousands of illegal immigrants land on Europe's southern shores each year in rickety and overcrowded boats. Thousands more die in the attempt, non-governmental organizations say.

Often they are educated young men who risk their lives not for the glamour of a western lifestyle -- many expect to face humiliating poverty and racist abuse in Europe -- but simply in the hope of repatriating money for needy relatives.

Niang wanted to be a doctor or pharmacist but his father died just after he left high school. With no jobs in Senegal, his family said he should take the clandestine route to Europe.

He tried for eight months to get into Ceuta, slicing his hands on the razor-wire border fence and almost drowning twice when he tried to swim round it, wearing a wetsuit and car tire inner tube for buoyancy, sold to him by a Moroccan fixer.

Each time, border guards caught him and dumped him on the barren Morocco-Algeria border, hoping he would not try again. Each time he smuggled his way back on trucks and goods trains.

With the 3,000 euros ($3,600) his father left the family wasted on swindlers who promised safe passage, he eventually stormed the fence with hundreds of other Africans last October, when Madrid and Rabat sent troops to the frontier.

"When we tried the forced attack, the guards shot. It became a war," Niang said, sitting cross-legged on the floor of his room empty except for a mattress and dusty television set.

"I'd prefer to starve to death than go that route again."


The European Union has warned immigration is a "time bomb" and some officials want a joint Mediterranean security force of marine guards and police officers to combat human trafficking.

Italy saw a 50 percent rise in the number of African migrants crossing to its shores by boat last year, while Spanish lifeboats rescued close to 6,000 at sea.

"The slogan for young people in Africa has become immigrate or die," said Alioune Tine, secretary-general of Senegal-based African human rights group RADDHO.

"There are mothers who sell their jewels so their kids can go. It's a huge failure of development politics in Africa."

At least 11 migrants were shot by guards or trampled to death in October in Ceuta and Melilla, another Spanish outpost.

Niang was among hundreds rounded up by Moroccan forces, driven to the desert and abandoned. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said the group included pregnant women and children.

Some European politicians blame famine for the rise in African immigration, while aid workers say civilians fleeing wars as far away as Sudan or Democratic Republic of Congo travel dangerous smuggling routes across the Sahara to seek asylum.

But war and pestilence are not the full story.

"Among those from sub-Saharan Africa are the brightest, the most successful from their villages. Asylum seekers are the minority," said Javier Gabaldon, MSF coordinator in Morocco.


Most of the Africans hiding in Tangiers or Rabat, or in woodland around the border hoping for an opportunity to sneak to Europe, are from Senegal, Mali, Nigeria, Guinea and Cameroon, none of which are suffering from high-level conflict or famine.

What pushes most to risk their lives to get to France, Italy or Spain, is a desperate lack of opportunities in West Africa, where unemployment sometimes tops 50 percent and more than two-thirds of the population are under 30 years old.

"Goodbye family and homeland, friends and brothers, I'll be back with pockets full of gold," run the lyrics of Exodus, a song by Senegal's most popular hip-hop group, Daara J.

Few want to stay more than a couple of years, enough to save money working in a factory to build a better life back home.

"When they come back they're treated as kings. They build the best houses in Dakar, drive the best cars," said Abdou Malal Diop, minister for Senegalese living abroad.

"But when you see where they live in Paris, the communal toilets, the landings strewn with rubbish, sometimes three to a small room ... all so they can save money to send home."

Diop estimates there are up to 3 million Senegalese living abroad, the majority of them illegally, repatriating 300 billion CFA ($560 million) a year through official channels alone.

For Niang, who now works as a "bana bana," a street vendor, buying pirated CDs and selling them on, the fantasy is over.

"It's hard to live somewhere you're not respected anyway, where there's racism, where you're always asked for your papers," he said.

"If I had my choice and my family were in better condition I'd study. Medicine or pharmacy. Those were my dreams."