Africans Risk Death at Sea for New Life Abroad
Mauritania Becomes a Gateway to Europe

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 1, 2006

NOUADHIBOU, Mauritania -- Magat Jope kicked gently at his dead friend's clothes, which lay in a rotting heap in a corner of the desert graveyard.

A yellow fisherman's oilskin. A lavender jacket. The clothes that Goure Deye was wearing in February when he and close to 30 other illegal immigrants drowned in the Atlantic Ocean, trying to reach Spanish soil on a tiny boat. The garments were clinging to the bloated body when Jope identified his friend and brought him to this cemetery a few miles from shore.

The gravediggers were supposed to have burned the clothes by now. But death on the water has kept them busy lately. They wield heavy iron crowbars in 100-degree heat to chip grave after grave from the brick-hard Sahara. They bury the bodies first, wrapped in the white funeral shrouds of Muslim tradition, then burn the jackets and pants when they can.

Humanitarian officials estimate that at least 1,000 African immigrants have died in the past four months attempting to ride narrow, open fishing boats across 600 miles of rough Atlantic water to Spain's Canary Islands.

Thousands of other Africans seeking a way out of punishing poverty have fled by boat in the Mediterranean toward southern Italy or climbed barbed wire into Ceuta and Melilla, two Spanish territories on the northern coast of Africa. Now, with crackdowns making those routes increasingly impassable, the beaches of this desert country are the newest back door into Europe.

Wealthy beyond belief in the eyes of destitute people almost everywhere, the European Union also draws an illicit flow of migrants from the former Soviet Union, China, Latin America and the Arab world. Together, these tides of people are adding up to one of the most significant migrations of current times.

The new route from Africa appears to be far more dangerous than the older ones, but people keep coming. "If you are as poor as we are, you are not afraid of death," said Jope, 34, an electrician and polite father of two. "I want a house. I want to educate my children. The risk doesn't matter."

Jope is from Senegal. He is here, he explained in a lengthy interview, because his country has nothing to offer. His father has diabetes; Jope and his wife and children have been living mainly on help from his mother, who runs a little business selling drinking water. If his mother died, he worried, his family would have nothing.

Then one day the phone rang and on the other end was a friend, calling from the Canaries. He'd made the six-day sea voyage safely. In Spain a laborer could earn close to $2,000 a month, the friend said; when Jope worked, he made about $40 a month.

So Jope got on a long-distance bus, carrying with him more than $1,000, money provided by his mother to pay for his sea passage and, hopefully, his new start in Europe. Three days later, he stepped down in Nouadhibou, a noisy oceanside market town of 90,000 people. It is the second-largest city in Mauritania, a million-square-mile expanse of desert with a population of only 2.9 million.

On any day, the town's markets are filled with traders in flowing robes selling oranges and dates. There are nearly as many donkeys as cars on the rutted streets. Along the beaches, hundreds of open fishing boats deliver cargos of mullet, shark and bright-colored shellfish.

Jope soon became aware there were many people like him in town, outsiders trying to blend in, avoid the police and find boats heading to the Canaries. They were from Mali, Gambia, Nigeria and other West African countries. A population boom and ballooning joblessness in many African countries, driven in part by a wave of subsistence farmers moving from their villages into cities, has caused thousands to risk the journey here.

Ahmed Ould Haye, local head of the Red Crescent, the Muslim counterpart of the Red Cross, estimated that about 15,000 migrants were milling around here waiting to go to the Canaries.

Many work as laborers or fishermen to earn money for the voyage, which typically costs $1,200, Haye said. Some of them pool their funds and buy a narrow boat shaped like a canoe, pointed at both ends. Some pay fishermen to take them. Others deal with middlemen who arrange boat and skipper. Local authorities say a boat leaves nearly every night, jammed with as many as 60 people.

Those who reach the Spanish islands often immediately turn themselves in. Under Spanish law, authorities have 40 days to determine the nationality of detained illegal immigrants and send them home. If they can't find that out in that period -- and many immigrants make a point of arriving with no identification and remaining stubbornly silent in the face of questioning -- they are turned over to the Red Cross and allowed to stay. Many find ways to make it off the Canary Islands and get to Europe proper.

Last year, 4,700 illegal immigrants were registered in the Canaries. In just the first three months of this year, the number was 3,800.

In Nouadhibou, Jope fell in with Deye and two other men from Senegal. They lived in a small rented room while they plotted their departure. Jope was first. On Feb. 1, he walked down to the beach in a cold winter breeze, paid about $10 for a worn orange lifejacket and stepped into a 40-foot fishing boat with 34 other people.

He handed the captain $1,100.

The canoe-like boat chugged away from shore powered by a 40-horsepower outboard motor and steered by the captain using a hand-held global positioning device.

Almost immediately, Jope said, passengers who were not used to being on the water began vomiting. The smell was overpowering. Jope, over six feet tall, found there was barely enough room for people to sit. His legs and ankles swelled so much that he couldn't straighten them.

People prayed and talked quietly, he recalled. There was plenty of food and water, but no one could sleep, and the leaky boat needed constant bailing.

Four days out, they were intercepted by a Moroccan naval vessel. Sailors tied a line to the bow of the immigrants' boat and towed it for three days back to Nouadhibou. All the way, Jope felt devastated.

When they approached the town, everyone on the boat jumped overboard and swam to shore, then ran away to avoid being detained and sent home. He never saw the captain again, and his $1,100 was gone.

When he returned to the room he had rented with his friends, he heard what happened to them.

They had left on Feb. 4 on a crowded fishing boat. It sank in darkness and most of those on board drowned, according to survivors who were picked up by a passing fishing trawler.

One of the survivors told Jope that after the boat went down, he had floated in the water with Deye until a large wave came and washed Deye away. Deye's body was pulled from the water by the trawler crew, but the bodies of his two other friends, N'Daga N'Daye, 23, and Abdoullah Lak, 19, were not found.

"The frontier between Africa and Europe is turning into one of the most dangerous migratory passages ever seen," said Rickard Sandell, an immigration specialist at the Real Instituto Elcano in Madrid, a private research group. Sandell predicts that immigration pressure on Europe from Africa will only intensify. "We are just seeing the start of something much, much bigger," he said.

Estimates of the death toll surpass 1,000. But officials concede that they have no real way of knowing the number of immigrants who have died at sea, their bodies never found.

How long Nouadhibou will remain a jumping-off point is unclear. Authorities are mobilizing to stop the boats from leaving. The Spanish and Mauritanian governments are building a 320-bed detention center at the edge of town. The local police station, where migrants caught at sea are now held pending deportation, is unable to cope with the flow.

"We are victims of an immigration that we cannot control," Haye said.

In addition, immigrants who do reach the Canaries may find it less hospitable. Spanish officials can invoke an agreement with Mauritania that says illegal immigrants who pass through the country can be returned to it, regardless of their nationality. At least 170 have been brought back in the past week under that agreement.

Sitting in the small room that he had shared with his friends, Jope pulled a photo of Deye out of an old plastic bag and told the story of the men's deaths without emotion.

He smiled as he remembered arguments about soccer that he'd had with Deye. And how difficult it was to call his friend's mother in Senegal and break the news. But he said Deye understood the risk he was taking, so his death was not a surprise. "We have no choice," he said. "It could be me next."

Jope said he planned to go home to Senegal, pay his mother back, save some more, then come back to Nouadhibou to try again.

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