- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 12, 2005

GAO, MALI

Amadou Toure, 28, stares calmly at the most hostile stretch of land in the tropics, unlike the other 16 West African migrants ner-

vously milling around the beat-up Toyota Land Cruiser that is to take them from the edge of this remote outpost in Mali across the Sahara, in hopes of reaching Europe.

The journey across this fiery stretch of sand is perilous, but it is only one of the risks that lie between Mr. Toure and his goal.

Even with the five-quart surplus of water he has for the two-day trip to the Algerian border, the former medical student knows that no amount of planning can assure safe passage through a desert the size of the United States.

Less than a day’s drive north of Gao are the graves of seven would-be emigrants who died of thirst when their truck broke down.

The lawless expanses of northern Mali also harbor bandits who have hijacked trucks and taken travelers hostage. Fortunate hostages are abandoned near villages; others have had their throats slit.

If he survives the desert crossing, Mr. Toure must get to the Mediterranean shore of Morocco, where he can risk being smuggled to Europe on a rickety boat or join the hundreds of African would-be migrants who have stormed the fences that separate Morocco from Melilla and Ceuta, two Spanish-held enclaves on the African coast.

“I want to live in Spain more than anything, but I am taking my time,” Mr. Toure said. “Too many people rush, make stupid mistakes and get caught. I will not be one of them, God willing.”

The latest assault on the border came last Thursday when about 400 people tried to cross razor wire fences into Melilla. It was the sixth such rush in a week and the 11th since August.

Last week, six Africans were killed in clashes with Moroccan security forces. The week before that, five persons died when 500 tried to cross into Ceuta, about 300 miles west of Melilla. All five suffered gunshot wounds, and both Morocco and Spain were investigating.

Despite the danger, Mr. Toure swore he will never turn back. “It is worse to be stuck in the mud at home with no future,” he said.

His resolve is common among the thousands of men and women who flee poverty northward across the Sahara for a chance at living in the West.

Mr. Toure said he maintained top grades for two years in his university biology program at Conakry, Guinea’s capital, while working full time. His prospects still appeared grim.

“In my country, you can be the best in school and still, no job. I had enough of the system. Nothing is certain.”

The dim hopes for socioeconomic progress and the political instability of many West African countries have made Gao a busy place.

The town thrived in the 15th and 16th centuries as a trading center for trans-Saharan caravans bearing gold, salt and slaves.

Today its main commodity is people, who arrive in trucks from Nigeria, Guinea, Ghana and points farther south looking for the back door to Europe.

Muhammad, a local fixer, said about a dozen hopefuls arrive in Gao each day. He said Algerian Arabs operate a network of Land Cruisers that each hustle 20 passengers to the border. Once there, they must arrange their own transportation to continue northward.

Others hire Tuaregs, nomadic desert people who know which routes avoid official crossings in case the traveler’s papers are not in order. Most head northwest to Tindouf in Algeria, then cross Morocco en route to Spain. Those who want to get to Italy travel via Libya.

The journey can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, Muhammad said.

The European Union has responded with measures this month to prevent illegal immigration, because of about 650,000 orders to deport illegal aliens from the European Union last year, only about a third were carried out.

Under proposals, rules among the 25 EU member states would be standardized to expedite the return of illegal migrants. Spain also is asking Morocco to reactivate a 1992 accord on returning illegal migrants to Morocco.

For now, arrivals in Ceuta or Melilla are taken to a holding camp that usually overflows with more than 1,500 people. Most are in legal limbo because they come from countries without automatic repatriation agreements that would allow Spain to send them home, meaning their governments won’t take them back.

In most cases, Spain does not give these people work permits or residency papers, and they can be held for only 40 days. Some are flown to mainland Spain and eventually freed to fend for themselves.

A flight carrying 25 immigrants left Melilla for the mainland earlier this month.

Back in Gao, night has fallen over the desert and Mr. Toure takes the next step in his journey. He knows the Sahara crossing is just the beginning of the trials ahead, with greater forces working against him than ever before.

He understands that the “success stories” of other people who “made it” are rarely as sweet in reality, and that crime, drugs, prostitution and menial jobs await many African migrants.

But he remains self-assured.

“I’ve given myself two more years to complete the journey,” he said. “In the north I will work and save more money. … When the moment is right to cross, the odds will be on my side.”

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