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Last Updated: Saturday, 2 December 2006, 11:56 GMT
Seas hold no fear for the hungry
Peter Greste
BBC News, Senegal

Spanish ministers have been holding talks this week with their African counterparts to bolster co-operation with sub-Saharan African states over illegal immigration. But why are so many people prepared to risk everything for a new life in Europe?

Ndiro Diop
The greatest danger a man can face is to wake up to find his children are hungry and he has no food to offer them
Ndiro Diop

There is no place like home.

It is a cliche, but like all cliches, beneath it lurks a fundamental truth.

In my years of travel in this job, I am always amazed by how much people love the place they grew up in, whether it is a giant rubbish heap on the industrial outskirts of Mexico City, or a sprawling slum in Karachi, or a tennis court-sized patch of dust that passes for a farm in West Africa.

That is where I met Ndiro Diop, a 26-year-old man who lives in the village of Mekhe in central Senegal.

When I first arrived there, something did not seem right.

Then I realised the village consisted almost entirely of women and children.

There were a handful of men - either very young or very old - but the rest were conspicuously absent.

Voyage of desperation

There was a listlessness about the place, a sense of desperation that weighed like a leaden blanket on top of the dense, humid air.

Village of Mekhe
Most men in the village have gone to Europe or are planning to do so

I sat with Ndiro under a tree, brushing away the flies, and I asked him why he had not followed his friends, brothers and cousins on that perilous journey to the Canary Islands and to Europe beyond.

He looked at me with an expression in his eye that implied it was a silly question with an obvious answer.

He had already tried and failed... twice, and he was busy saving for a third attempt.

"So," I asked. "Is Europe really that attractive that it's worth risking your life for?"

"Not at all," Ndiro shot back. "Why would a man want to leave what he knows for something he doesn't?

"Why would he want to abandon his family, his wife, or his children, and possibly leave them to starve?

"Why would he turn his back on the land where his blood is buried?"

Then Ndiro answered his own questions.

"The greatest danger a man can face," he said, "is to wake up to find his children are hungry and he has no food to offer them.

"Measured against that, the hazards of a long sea voyage to Europe are nothing."

Uncertain future

Map of Senegal
So far this year 28,000 migrants have arrived in the Canary Islands

That is not to suggest that Europe is not attractive to them - far from it.

In fact, locals in Senegal talk of Spain in particular as if it was a Garden of Eden, with fat, juicy jobs hanging from every tree, ripe for the picking.

Those that have made it send back money. It is a pittance by European standards, but a small fortune for families who survive on less than 1 ($2) a day.

It is enough to give an aura of wealth and prosperity that West Africans can only dream of.

But people like Ndiro are under no illusions about the risks of the journey.

There is also the sobering knowledge that hundreds - probably thousands - have perished along the way, either by drowning, or starvation, or thirst.

It takes enormous courage to leave the safety and security of home for an uncertain future in an unknown land.

Big foreign trawlers

None of this is new, of course.

Pape Barro
If Europeans take our fish... they can take our people too
Pape Barro

West Africans have been trying to sneak into Europe for years.

And it does not explain why the numbers of boat people reaching the Canary Islands jumped from last year's total of 4,000 to more than 27,000 so far this year.

I do not know of any official who has a definitive answer, but down on the beaches of Mbour, south of Dakar, plenty of people blame the fishermen.

Like Ndiro, Pape Barro is another young man who sees no future in Senegal.

When we met, he was sealing up the cracks in an old fishing boat, preparing it, coincidentally, for his third attempt to reach the Canaries.

Pape pointed out that nobody would be going without the fishermen or their boats to carry them.

For years, he and his colleagues had been making a modest but respectable living in their small, open boats and hand-cast nets.

But now, the fisheries have collapsed.

And instead of struggling and failing to make a living at sea, the fishermen say they are much better off by loading their boats with paying passengers, for a one-way trip for Europe.

And here is the irony.

Male villagers and fishermen
The remaining men in the village feel they have few options

Waving his hand over the horizon, Pape blamed Europeans for the crisis.

"The only thing that has changed in recent years," he said, "is the arrival of big foreign trawlers just off shore, that sweep up far more from the sea than the Senegalese fleet has ever done.

"If Europeans take our fish they can take our people too."

What Pape and Ndiro and others made clear is that higher walls and tougher border controls might look good to voters inside Europe, but they are just irritants to migrants who are prepared to risk their lives, and that any attempt to stem migration will ultimately fail without tackling the reasons that people leave their homes in the first place.

"After all," said Pape, "how do you stop those whose slogan is Barca ou Barsakh [Barcelona or death]?"

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 2 December, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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