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Africans risk shipwrecks and mines to reach Europe

Written by: Staff
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NOUADHIBOU, Mauritania, Mar 27 (Reuters) 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.

MIGRATE OR DIE 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 (0) 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 percent, 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.

MORE REUTERS VJ RK0848

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