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Migrant Deaths in Gabon Highlight New Prospects for EU Policy


At least a dozen African migrants drowned when their boat sank overnight off the coast of Gabon. Some analysts say such tragedies will continue if EU policy towards Africa is not modified. From our West Africa and Central bureau in Dakar, Brent Latham has more.

The craft sank near Libreville, Gabon, leading to the drowning deaths of at least 12 of the migrants. The bodies of the victims began to wash up on a beach of the seaside capital.

No survivors have been found, making it impossible to determine the exact circumstances that led to the accident or the direction and destination of those on board. Reports said that an identification document from Ghana was found with the bodies.

Ghana's Interior Ministry said this might have been a case of West Africans trying to migrate to Gabon.

Gabon Interior Minister Andre Mba Obame says there are 400,000 illegal West African migrants looking for work in oil-rich, but impoverished Gabon, which has a total population of just 1.3 million.

When some of these migrants do not find steady work, they many times reverse course and try equally dangerous trips to Europe.

Incidents such as the boat sinking off Libreville have become relatively common in recent years, as Sub-Saharan Africans attempt challenging journeys to Europe by sea. The boats used usually are not designed for high seas or the number of people sometimes packed aboard them.

The Geneva-based International Organization for Migration said last week that the number of migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa to Europe is smaller than sometimes reported. Spokesman Jean-Phillipe Chauzy was quoted as saying "it is estimated there are tens of thousands of West Africans who enter European countries illegally each year, not the hundreds of thousands that is regularly stated."

But the danger of traveling the open sea means that many who attempt the journey never arrive.

Dakar-based political analyst Boubacar Gueye says that as long as the economic conditions in Africa remain difficult, the journeys, and deaths, will continue. He says it is poverty that is causing Africans to attempt the journey. He added that most of the would-be immigrants are young.

Gueye suggested that the European Union has a role to play in solving the problem. He said he thinks the solution is for Africa and Europe to work together to see how to ease the African crisis and to improve the conditions of life in Africa.

The solution, Gueye said, should be proactive and not reactive. He pointed to EU initiatives that involve patrolling coastal waters and returning irregular immigrants as solutions that would have little effect in the long run.

Gueye says addressing the root causes of poverty is more important.

Another Senegal analyst, Babacar Justin N'diaye, says expectations are high that something can be done with France taking over the rotating EU presidency.

In speeches about European-African relations, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said he would like ties to be radically changed. Some of his projects though, such as granting visas only to educated Africans or creating a new union between Europe and north Africa, have raised skepticism among many analysts in Sub-Saharan Africa that any effective policy change will come out of the French presidency.