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African Illegal Immigrants Describe Trips

Posted by By MAR ROMAN, Associated Press Writer on 2006/04/14 | Views: 1297 |

African Illegal Immigrants Describe Trips


Masse Diop says he kept his eyes closed and tried to sleep during his perilous four days at sea, crammed against the side of an aging fishing boat with 25 other African migrants who hoped the wind and sea would bring them to the promised land of Europe and not a watery grave.

Masse Diop says he kept his eyes closed and tried to sleep during his perilous four days at sea, crammed against the side of an aging fishing boat with 25 other African migrants who hoped the wind and sea would bring them to the promised land of Europe and not a watery grave.

Diop, from Cameroon, and his companions managed to survive the 600-mile journey from the northern Mauritanian port of Nouadhibou to Spain's Canary Islands, just off Africa's west coast. But about 1,000 others have died attempting the trip since November 2005, according to the Red Crescent Society in Mauritania.

Despite the danger, desperation and the lure of an escape from grinding poverty have kept the choppy seas full of people like Diop.

"I came here to earn my living and secure a future for my family," said Diop, in a soft, faltering voice, fidgeting with his sunglasses and his black cap.

Back in Yaounde, in his native Cameroon, Diop left a wife and year-old daughter. He traveled by road and by foot across Nigeria, Benin and Mali to get to Mauritania, then paid $600 for the illegal boat trip.

His boat was seen by Spanish authorities in January and its occupants sent to a detention facility. But within weeks, the 30-year-old was released because Spain has no repatriation treaty with Cameroon. Under Spanish law, authorities have 40 days to identify and repatriate illegal migrants, and must free them if the deadline isn't met.

Diop is free but has no work papers and little hope of getting them.

Now he wanders in search of off-the-books work through the banana groves in El Fraile, a town in southern Tenerife just 10 miles from the sandy beaches where European tourists spend their vacations. He has not found any work and lives on the little food and clothes the Spanish Red Cross provides.

"After all this, it wasn't worth it," Diop said with a sigh, a backpack with all of his belongings slung over his shoulder. "At least in my country, I could work."

Seca Embaye, the president of an association of African immigrants in the Canary Islands who helps newcomers like Diop with money, bus tickets, clothes and cigarettes, said Spanish and African authorities should try harder to stop young men from embarking on the boat journeys.

"It's not about helping African countries with investments, but telling their people the truth about how difficult and expensive life is in Europe and how dangerous it is to come by boat," says Embaye, who is from Senegal. "That's the only way to stop them coming and dying."

More than 4,000 African would-be migrants have been caught by Spanish authorities trying to reach the Canary Islands so far this year, compared with 4,751 for all of 2005. It's not clear how many escape detection, but it is clearly enough to encourage many more to embark on what they readily acknowledge is a perilous sea crossing.

For decades, they have set out from Morocco, sailing north across the Strait of Gibraltar to the Spanish mainland. But a crackdown by Morocco has increasingly steered migrants to the islands, with Mauritania as the new departure point.

Locals in the Canary Islands call the crossing "a mass grave," but gruesome tales do little to deter young Africans, who see reaching Europe as their only chance to earn enough money for a better life.

"I tell my countrymen back in Morocco, 'it's better that you don't come by boat,'" said Abdullah Simir, a 27-year-old Moroccan hairdresser from the coastal town of Agadir, who made two crossings from El-Aaiun, Western Sahara's capital, to the Canary Island of Fuerteventura.

He got caught the first time in 1999 just off the coast of the island and was repatriated. He tried again in 2000 and succeeded, and now lives legally in El Fraile. "I was lucky," Simir said.

"It is always better to try to get a job in Morocco. The crossing is very tough, very dangerous and very sad. Anyway, life here is not that easy," he added. But he says it's difficult to persuade them not to come.

"They don't believe me. They think I lie," he said.

John Ike left Nigeria for the Canary Islands, a journey of more than two years through Togo, Benin, Algeria and Morocco. Before his boat trip from Morocco in 1999, he survived for months on dirty brown water and bread given to him by villagers. Some days, he went without even that.

Ike, who comes from the violence-plagued Nigerian province of Emugu, says immigrants will continue coming to the Canary Island, no matter the dangers.

"We immigrants are not heroes. We come here because in our countries there is no money, no good hospitals, no future. If our countries were good, we wouldn't come here," said the 31-year-old, who has found work on construction sites and has legal residency in the Canary Islands.

Ike's countryman, Augustine Nwafor, 29, also legal in Spain, agrees.

"There's no other option," he said as he sipped a soft drink in a bar in Guaza, a town near El Fraile that is home to many immigrants. "The route is dangerous, but one needs to find a way to survive."

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Fay(Katy, Texas, US)says...

Actually translates to bravehearted.