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West African Youths Divided on Clandestine Migration

As West African youths continue to attempt illegal Atlantic ocean crossings to Europe, those who stay behind have mixed reactions. Some say the crossing is suicidal; others say it is everyone's right to seek a better life. Phuong Tran speaks to youths in Senegal and Mauritania, two main departure points for Africa's would-be migrants, and has this report for VOA.

At this seaside barber shop in the fishing , 17-year-old Sierra Leonean Alvin Johnson takes his first customer of the day.

He came here three years ago, not to cut hair, but in the hopes of making it to Spain on a fishing canoe.

He says he was escaping the fallout from the decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone that separated him from his family.

But he says he quickly changed his mind.

"I came here. I see the process people pass through. It is very dangerous. I have seen a lot. The tides that brought them in," Johnson said. "A lot of them die here [in] the sea."

Instead, Johnson learned how to cut hair and now shares space with other West African migrants-turned-barbers.

Last year, more than 31,000 Africans, mostly men, made it to Spain's Canary Islands, a top destination for African boat migrants trying to reach Europe.

Officials are unsure how many have died at sea.

European officials started fighting back with more surveillance and repatriations.

In the first half of this year, Spain turned back 20,000 at its borders.

Vijaya Souri, deputy director of the International Office for Migration office in Nouadhibou Mauritania, says many young people are still determined.

She says they are taking bigger risks, cramming themselves into smaller canoes.

"The numbers multiply toward the Canary Islands when the conditions are better at sea, and the conditions are much more difficult through land," Souri said.

Facely, a 21-year-old Guinean, says seeing his friends die has not changed his determination to leave. He says he is ashamed that he cannot help his little brother financially. He says when he sees wealthy Africans who are able to travel easily to Europe, he also wants that.

Baye Gai is a 22-year-old Senegalese man who has also seen friends leave on the dangerous journey. He says he does not have several thousand dollars to hire a boat organizer to take him to the Canary Islands. But he says those who can afford the trip have the right to find a way to provide for their families.

He says Europeans do not have the right to close their borders, even if the migrants do not have travel documents. Gai asks whether Europeans had papers when they came and colonized Africa. If it was legal then, he says, it should be legal for Africans to go to Europe now, however they choose.

The Spanish government is experimenting with temporary work visas and job training programs to reduce illegal migration from West Africa.

Last month, the West African Economic and Monetary Union announced a $6 billion package to build roads, dig water wells and improve rural options over the next five years to help youth make money at home.