In Gambia, heartache and few answers after migrant deaths

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BARRA, Gambia (AP) — Tina Gomez told no one in her family when she boarded a boat with more than 200 people here in Gambia last month, setting off in hopes of reaching Spain with her 2-year-old son. News of their journey came only once their boat capsized, killing 63 passengers.

The young mother who sold clothes had been living hand to mouth, her brother said. No one knows how she obtained the 35,000 dalasis (nearly $700) to book spots aboard the ill-fated vessel.

“What she was earning was just for what it took her to care for herself and her kid,” Edgar Gomez said. “We were totally left in the dark about her project to embark on this dangerous journey.”

Her story is all too common in West Africa, where rampant poverty pushes many to risk their lives in hope of prosperity in Europe. Thousands of Gambians fled for their lives during the brutal reign of dictator Yahya Jammeh until he flew into exile in 2017. Poverty continues to drive migration even after his ouster.

While Gambia has only 2 million people, some 35,000 have reached Europe by “irregular means” between 2014 and 2018, according to United Nations migration agency statistics. Others have never reached their destination.

Most would-be migrants have made their way in trucks across the Sahara desert in hopes of crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe. But some now set off by boat from this Gambian town. Observers attribute the shift to the harsh conditions many Africans have faced in Libya.

In this town where the 63 victims set off, there is no sign of the boat’s owner. Authorities have declined to comment on his whereabouts and whether he may face prosecution in connection with one of the deadliest disasters this year among young Africans trying to reach Europe.

The pain is felt throughout the region, where fishing boats these days carry migrants instead.

Mariatou Barry is inconsolable after the death of her 18-year-old sister in the shipwreck. Sofiatou Barry was a student at nearby Essau Senior Secondary School. She was described by neighbors as a promising student.

“She was my hope. I don’t understand what is happening to me,” Mariatou said as her eyes flooded with tears.

The families have learned painful details about their loved one’s final days from the dozens who survived by swimming through rough seas to Mauritania’s shore after the boat capsized on Dec. 4. Some 150 people had been aboard for a week en route to Spain’s Canary Islands but diverted toward Mauritania as fuel and food ran low.

Yet even with the disaster, some in Gambia are still making the dangerous voyage.

On Dec. 12, a second fishing boat was intercepted by the Mauritanian coast guard, according to the U.N. migration agency. More than 150 people were on board.

Ndey Fatou Jah Ngum was among those rescued. She won’t say much about how she got in touch with the smugglers who arranged the voyage or whether she would try again.

Every risk she took was for her children, she said.

“What I am earning in doing business cannot even cover our real cost of living,” she said.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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