Migrants: Death at sea better than African 'nightmare'

14.Mar.06,  first published by CNN.com: read the original article here.

NOUADHIBOU, Mauritania (Reuters) -- A fisherman brings in two corpses found floating at sea. A few kilometers up the coast, a naked body lies washed up on a barren stretch of sand.

This desolate sun-blasted coastline in northern Mauritania, where the Sahara desert meets the Atlantic, has become the latest staging post for migrants fleeing poverty in Africa and local authorities say they are struggling to cope.

Every night, scores of mostly young men from around West Africa pack themselves into open fishing boats and leave Nouadhibou for Spain's Canary Islands, hoping to enter Europe illegally and find work.

"This is a phenomenon that is taking on ever greater proportions," Colonel Mohamed Ould El Ghazouani, Mauritania's Director of National Security, said late on Monday after touring the port at Nouadhibou.

Local officials estimate there are 10,000 to15,000 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa in and around Nouadhibou waiting to earn enough money to pay for the crossing to Spain. Authorities say they have apprehended more than 600 in the past month alone.

"We are doing the best we can ... but we do not even make the pretense of being able to do anything on our own to stop it," he said, adding joint patrols with Spain's Civil Guard were one possibility.

Thousands of illegal immigrants from Africa land on Europe's southern shores each year in rickety and overloaded boats. Hundreds more die in the attempt.

A favored route used to be from Morocco to the Canaries or directly across the Mediterranean to Spain. But under pressure from the European Union, Rabat has cracked down on people smugglers, pushing the problem further south.

"Morocco used to be easy. But they've closed it off up there," said Mohamed Sidi, a 21-year old from Mali who has tried three times to cross the razor wire fence that separates Morocco from Spain's north African enclave of Ceuta.

'In Africa, there's nothing'

Like many of the workers from Mali, Senegal or Guinea-Bissau at Nouadhibou port, Sidi is trying to save the $550 needed to buy a place in a pirogue -- a traditional fishing boat -- for the three-day voyage to the Canaries.

"All the Africans here came to do the same thing. In Africa there's nothing. What else are we going to do?" he said.

At least 40 migrants drowned in two shipwrecks near here 10 days ago. But the thought that they might die does little to deter those who -- by their own admission -- have become obsessed with the idea of getting to Europe.

"You can't get a visa, you can't get the money together, but you have to go. It starts to mess with your head," said Koudou Mohamed, 20, from Burkina Faso.

"It's in the hands of God. If I go and I die, I die. If I make it, I make it," he said.

Across the quayside in the marine police station, a group of more than 30 mostly Senegalese men are being held after they were found on Sunday making preparations to depart illegally. Almost 100 more are detained in town.

"When I have the money, I'll try again. Keeping trying until you die is better than staying here in this nightmare," said Ibrahima Niass, 24, still wearing the woollen hat and thick jumper he put on for his planned night-time departure.

"All my friends who are there (in Europe) come back with money ... they tell us you have to leave everything and come here," he said softly, slouching on the police station floor.

"The risks don't make me afraid."