Hundreds of Africans, mostly young men, try every week to board fishing canoes headed for Spanish territory. Some make it, but thousands are caught, detained and sent back to Africa. Phuong Tran met with a group of migrants after their boat capsized at sea, and has this report for VOA.
Boats pull into the port in Nouadhibou all day, unloading fish and other sea catches. In recent years, fishing canoes have started carrying another cargo -- West Africans trying to make it to Europe.
To escape suspicion, the boats carry only one to two people out to sea at a time. They transfer to larger boats waiting for them. Some have been able to make it to the Spanish Canary Islands more than 1,000 kilometers away.
But others do not.
As part of a year-old partnership, Mauritania received a surveillance ship manned by Spanish Commander Paco Corrales. He has chased smugglers off Spain's southern coast, but he says his new job in Mauritania is tougher.
"If there is an intervention at sea, nobody on the ship can sleep. And if we are not stopping somebody, we have to be on lookout. Not all the canoes we stop are because of leaked news from our informants. We come across some of them during our routine surveillance. But in order to catch them, we have to be vigilant all night long."
Once the ship stops or rescues a boatload of migrants, Corrales sends them to a detention center in Nouadhibou. The would-be migrants remain for up to three days, unable to leave except for medical care or bathroom breaks.
Some youths we saw were among 45 rescued when their boat started sinking after the motor died. All are West African. All under 25 years old. And all are hungry after being at sea for three days.
Some volunteer their information to help aid workers track where migrants come from. Most do not, like some men there from Mali, Guinea and Senegal. They say the less of a record they leave behind, the better.
"I fled Conarky because of suffering,” says Moussa Kaba, a Guinean migrant. “I go out for searching. When I get something, I will return back to go help my family."
Yossou Ndiaye, from Senegal, said, "By the time our boat started sinking, we were all so exhausted because the trip is really long."
A Malian added simply, "I want to go to Europe to make money, to have a job."
But for now, he and the others must wait in this center. A young man says he may try again, but it will be up to God to decide.