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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 October 2006, 00:33 GMT 01:33 UK
Gambia - new front in migrant trade
By Lucy Fleming
BBC News website, Gambia

A large fishing boat with African immigrants arriving in Tenerife
The boats are filled out of sight of the shore
As the Senegalese authorities and the European Union try to clamp down on the flow of Africans arriving in Spain's Canary Islands, a new departure point has opened up - Gambia - just 100km further south of the centre of the Senegalese migrant trade.

Senegal has become the centre in the past 12 months, after first Morocco and then Mauritania tightened their own borders in recent years.

Under the cover of an inky night sky, more than 100 men in small boats make their way over the coastal horizon from the small Gambian fishing village of Tanjeh every fortnight.

They are taken to a specially built wooden boat waiting beyond sight of the shore to transport them to an uncertain future.

The cost of the journey is between $880 to $1,250, but many of them pay with their lives before reaching the Spanish Canary Islands, from where they hope to go to mainland Europe and make their fortunes.

"The agents tell you that you have a 50/50 chance - the boat may sink or you may get sent back," says a tourist resort worker in his thirties, who was approached in Serrekunda about making a trip two months ago.

"One of them was Gambian, the other man was from Senegal," he says.

Third time lucky?

Between the colourful fishing vessels pulled up on Tanjeh beach, two larger boats are under construction on wooden scaffolding.

"Senegalese carpenters have been brought in to build the boats, which take about a month or two to build," a local trader in the area explains.

"That will cost more than 100,000 dalassis ($3,539), but the boats can hold between 60 to 120 men," he says.

As well as getting passengers and boats, the agents also purchase supplies: between 10 to 15 barrels of fuel, food for the trip - which takes about one week, water, first-aid packs and medicine for sea sickness.

A large fishing boat is hauled out of the water in Tenerife
These large boats are now being made on Gambia's beaches
But it is a lucrative trade with no shortage of people prepared to sell their assets or borrow money to make the journey.

While I was on the beach, a man came down to enquire when his boat would set sail.

He was too scared to talk to me directly but through an intermediary I was told this was his third attempt to reach Tenerife.

A month earlier he had gone to Senegal to make a crossing, but the boat had been forced to turn back.

He returned home and three weeks later went to join a boat off shore about to sail, but was turned away as it was full.

The farmer, who is in his forties and head of his family compound, hoped to leave the following week on the next boat out.


Those who do manage to make it across to the Canaries, where more than 20,000 African migrants are estimated to have landed this year, do not always find a promised land.

"My friend phoned when he arrived, but he can't find a job. His most immediate problem was finding accommodation and getting food," the tourist resort worker says.

An exhausted African migrant in Tenerife
Migrants are warned by the agents of the dangers
He had worked as a tailor in Serrekunda market before his departure three months ago.

"He regrets going and the police there are always searching for papers. But he borrowed the money to make the journey so he can't return."

There are also family expectations to deal with. His parents, wife and child live upcountry and would not welcome his return without money.

But such tales do little to deter others desperate to chance it.

Many Gambians complain about the near impossibility of obtaining a visa for the European Union; and the allure of being able to earn the equivalent to several months' wages in one day makes the journey worth the risk for many.

"My brother is married with four children, he's sold land to make the journey and nothing we say will discourage him," the trader says.

"Like others he says, 'I either die or I go.'"

Gambian police have begun cracking down on those found to be organising migrant trips and last month made arrests in Brufut fishing village.

Immigration police officers now patrol village beaches, mingling with the crowds by day as they wait for the fisherman to bring in their catch.

But this has just made those involved more cautious with operations conducted after sunset, when more and more Gambians are being smuggled out of sight.

Mauritania: 4 former Guardia Civil patrol boats, 1 Guardia Civil patrol boat, 1 Guardia Civil helicopter, 1 Customs patrol
Senegal: 1 Italian ship, 1 Italian plane, 1 Guardia Civil patrol boat, 1 Spanish Police helicopter, 3 Senegalese boats, 1 Senegalese plane, 1 Finnish plane due
Cape Verde: 1 Portuguese frigate

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