31.May.06, first published by Reuters ALertNet
THIAROYE SUR MER, Senegal, May 31 (Reuters) - Each week the mothers of Thiaroye, a small fishing community on the edge of Senegal's capital Dakar, put whatever hard-earned cash they can afford into a communal pot.
When the pot is full, whoever draws the lucky straw will use the money not for food or new clothes, but to send their sons on a perilous ocean voyage to Europe to seek a better life.
Some 9,000 illegal migrants from West Africa have made the crossing to Spain's Canary Islands so far this year, but hundreds have drowned in the attempt after their rickety wooden boats ran out of fuel or broke up in rough seas.
Boats leaving Senegal are largely organised by local fisherman, who say they use the money to repair their vessels and pay for fuel and food for the six to seven day crossing.
Far from being desperate dropouts, many of those leaving are among the brightest from their communities, chosen by their families because they have the greatest chance of finding work in Europe and sending money home.
"For the most part it is the mothers who organise associations and who put a bit of money aside each week," said fisherman Moctar Samb, 45, who has eight children.
"Once there is enough money they draw lots. If your name comes up, your son leaves. But they don't sleep, day or night, if he doesn't telephone," Samb said.
More than 20 young men from Thiaroye died when their pirogue -- a traditional, brightly-painted fishing boat -- sank in February en route to the Canaries. Still the exodus continues.
Overwhelmed by the influx, Spanish authorities have been flying those who arrive on the islands and cannot be repatriated to mainland cities including Barcelona.
"Barca or Barzakh" -- Barcelona or the afterlife -- has become the grisly motto of those leaving Senegal's shores.
Momadou Kane, 35, clutched photos of his two young sons to keep his spirits up as his pirogue drifted for days on the open sea after running out of fuel.
Two of his brothers drowned months earlier trying the same voyage and Kane, crammed into the 22-metre vessel with 80 other migrants, feared he was going to meet the same fate.
"We made a sail out of a tent that we were using to protect ourselves from the sun. We went for four days by sail. We had no food, no water, no fuel," he said, back in Thiaroye after the Moroccan navy saved him and he was repatriated.
The sharp rise in migrants heading for Spain has prompted a diplomatic offensive by Madrid which is offering increased aid to West African countries in return for repatriation agreements and tighter measures to control clandestine immigration.
Young men wrestling on Thiaroye's palm-fringed beach and fishermen mending their nets stopped to watch as a Senegalese patrol boat buzzed up and down offshore.
But few thought stricter controls would stem the tide.
"The guys who take this illegal route have so much expectation on their backs. If they don't fear death, of course they don't fear the authorities," Samb said.
Much of the expectation comes from the migrants' family and neighbours, who often provide the 500,000 CFA ($960) needed to buy a place in a pirogue. Migration is seen as a better bet than investing the money locally.
"If you invest here, as soon as things start to work a little bit people think you are doing well and they come to you with their problems," said Secka Fall, 31, who repairs and sells mobile phones at Thiaroye's market.
"The Senegalese family is so large. You have cousins, aunts, you cannot refuse to help them. That's why people leave -- if I go far, people won't bother me and I will be able to save."
The "tontine" -- communal pot -- which funds many of the departures is part of community life across West Africa, a way of clubbing together to pay for everything from medical bills to wedding ceremonies.
"There are youths who have lived 20 years here without ever having a salary, drinking tea, playing football," said Abdou Ndoye Mbaye, 63, an Islamic preacher in Thiaroye who has 13 children, one of them in Italy and another in Spain.
"It makes me afraid to see them go. Are they going to make it? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. But it is better for them to try their chance. Live or die," he said.
By Nick Tattersall