Abdoulaye, a Malian, spent more than US$500 to try to reach Spain across the Sahara, but he was caught by the Spanish authorities in Melilla, a Spanish enclave on the northern coast of Morocco and sent home 21 days later.
A few months on, he remains undeterred. “Of course I was discouraged by my experience, but I am going to try again,” he told IRIN. He is currently working doing odd jobs to try to earn enough for another package to Europe.
There are no official estimates of how many migrants arrive in Gao, one of the three main jumping off points for the journey across the Sahara to Europe. Migrants make the 1,200 kilometre journey from Bamako mostly on top of over-loaded trucks and wagons.
“I get at least 20 people a week coming to ask for assistance,” said an official in Gao’s regional administration who says would-be migrants from all over West Africa come to him asking for money to get to the Mali-Algerian border, or up to Kidal 1,100 km north of Bamako where they settle for a few months to accrue more money before continuing on their journey.
“There is no clear way to help them,” said the official, who asked not to be named.
A joint initiative between the government and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has been launched with the hope of persuading young people not to make the perilous journey across the Sahara and the Atlantic to reach Europe. Each year scores of people die on the way, although no one can give an accurate figure because of the vast scale of the poorly-policed region.
The month-long campaign, begun on 20 June is designed to show people what can go wrong on a journey to Europe, using sketches and songs written by failed migrants who talk about their experiences.
The initiative comes amid increasing concern by the Malian government and IOM about the number of people gathering in the northern town of Gao.
“Every week hundreds of people are coming” says Abdoulaye, “There are people from Niger, Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire, all over West Africa.”
Nicola Graviano, head of the IOM office in Bamako told IRIN “We are spread on in the three main regions of departure, Kayes, Sikasso and Gao… We’ve designed the activities – concerts and debates, to try to reflect people’s real experiences as closely as possible.”
“We know an information campaign is not the ultimate panacea, but the realities of illegal migration are there for everyone to see. It’s important that potential migrants understand that they risk losing their life and all their money – everything that a family or village has saved up for them.”
But these risks are lost on people like Abdoulaye, whose main motivation is lack of work.
“It’s too hard here, there are young people who get married, have families but there is nothing for them to do,” he complained.
And even when people are made aware of the potential hazards of irregular migration, they face other hazards such as being targeted by people-smuggling gangs, known as ‘coxers’, who lie in wait in Bamako and Gao to exploit vulnerable young people.
One area of Gao is so full of coxers and migrants that it has become known unofficially as the ‘ghetto’, according to an official in the regional administration, who also asked not to be named.
Sicko Diariba is head of department for Economic Promotion and Reinsertion at the Ministry for Malians Abroad, the government department that handles the cases of migrants who are thrown out of Europe, and she says she is ready to tackle the gangs head-on.
“We are going to target these smugglers who are like a mafia gang. They are people who don’t care about taking money from innocent young people. We will do everything to block the work of these people,” she said.
But she is thin on the detail. “We are just beginning our work, but we will have a system that goes right back to the migrants’ villages.”
The Malian government argues that it is already working to improve Malians’ job prospects. This month the government launched a series of vocational training workshops in various skills and has pledged to create more than 50,000 jobs across the country over five years.
The European Commission (EC) is also pitching in. Later this year, alongside the Malian government, it will open a job centre in Bamako to try to find people employment within the West African sub-region. In the future, Gabin Hamann, head of co-operation at the EC delegation in Bamako, says it may also try to link potential migrants with legal migration opportunities to Europe.
“If people are emigrating now it’s because they have a lack of perspective in their own countries, lack of health care and lack of access to jobs”, said Hamann. “We want to improve the living conditions of people here so they can stay in their own country.”