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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. More than 300 African migrants drowned off the Italian island of Lampedusa earlier this month. The tragedy has raised global awareness of a crisis that refugees and their caseworkers have long understood. Tens of thousands of Africans risk their lives each year to make the dangerous journey to Europe by boat.

Lauren Frayer traveled to the south coast of Spain to talk to people who have survived the harrowing journey.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Here in Tarifa, at Spain's southernmost tip, the mountains of Morocco loom in the distance less than nine miles away. Africa looks so close from here, and yet...

MUHAMMED: It is not an easy journey. It is a very, very difficult journey.

FRAYER: Twenty-year-old Muhammed made that journey last winter, fleeing his native Sierra Leone and lingering violence from the country's decade-long civil war.

MUHAMMED: It was me with my younger brothers, but they catch my younger brothers because they weren't able to run, and I can't save my younger brothers.

FRAYER: Your brother died?

MUHAMMED: Yeah, my brother died. My brother died, (unintelligible) brothers. They killed my people. (Unintelligible).

FRAYER: Muhammed suffered a machete slash to his skull; he still bears the scar. But he managed to escape, stowing away to Spain in the hold of a cargo ship.

MUHAMMED: No light, no food, nothing.

FRAYER: For how long?

MUHAMMED: For 10 days, very hopeless because I'm very hungry, I'm so afraid. You know, it's lots and lots of dark. I'd been in the darkness for 10 days, no water, no food, no nothing. So I'm very hopeless.

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FRAYER: I met Muhammed in a shelter on a back street in the coastal Spanish city of Malaga, a block from the Flamenco shows and souvenir shops. He lived on the streets here, eating from dumpsters, before an NGO helped him apply for asylum. His application was rejected last week.

MUHAMMED: Well, I think it's very bad for me because I'm expecting a better life, to get a good education. If I land a job, maybe when I go back to my country, I am able to do a job for myself and help my poor people. But it's very difficult. I'm jobless and I have no documents with me.

FRAYER: Muhammed's caseworker, Francisco Cansino, says that while Spain has no limit on the number of people to whom it can grant asylum, usually only about seven percent of applicants end up getting it.

FRANCISCO CANSINO: (Through translation) They all have these dramatic stories, escaping from mortal danger. Some come hidden in the wheel hubs of trucks. Others come swimming. They come by plane, by boat, by car, you name. The problem is that they can't document their stories. Keep in mind, when you're fleeing for your life, you don't always have time to collect all of your documents.

FRAYER: In fact, some migrants intentionally leave their ID cards behind. Under Spanish law, if it takes police more than 60 days to figure out where you're from, they're required to release you. Some migrants even refuse to speak fearing their accents will give them away.

Cemeteries along the coasts of Spain, Greece and Italy are dotted with anonymous graves of those who drowned and couldn't be identified. An African woman in Malaga showed me the only thing she had with her when she arrived in Spain, a slip of paper with a stranger's phone number. It rings at a tiny monastery next to an industrial port.

ISIDORO MACIAS MARTIN: Hola.

FRAYER: (Speaking foreign language).

MARTIN: (Speaking foreign language).

FRAYER: Isidoro Macias Martin is a Franciscan monk better known as Padre Patera. Pateris is a Spanish word for a type of small boat. For 40 years Padre Patera has been the first point of contact in Spain for thousands of migrants arriving illegally by boat.

MARTIN: (Through translation) They leave sub-Saharan Africa and cross the whole desert, where they face so many calamities: lack of sleep, hunger, everything. A small number of them even prostitute themselves to guards, to cross borders. Finally they reach Morocco, where they have to pay the mafia for a boat ride.

FRAYER: Padre Patera lugs two huge pots of pasta around the corner to a house he's provided for Nigerian migrants. It took these women four years to reach Spain from Nigeria; their kids were born along the way.

OMANIGO: My name is Omanigo(ph).

FRAYER: And how old are you?

OMANIGO: Eight.

FRAYER: Tell me how you came to Spain.

OMANIGO: With boats. It's very dangerous. I vomit, I cry, I was hungry, (unintelligible).

FRAYER: Their mother, Isoken Philips, was just 17 when she home. We sit outside, and she recounts a four-year journey through Niger, Mali, Algeria, Morocco and finally in an inflatable boat to Spain with nine pregnant women, herself and her toddler. And was it dangerous in your country? Like was there fighting, or why did you leave?

ISOKEN PHILIPS: I come here to look for a better life.

FRAYER: She's not trying for asylum. With no working papers, she gets by on church handouts and braids hair for extra cash. But she says she's achieved her dream already.

PHILIPS: Yeah, of course, I'm very, very happy because there are so many people that today, they are no more. What about me that I'm alive, I'm healthy. So I'm so very, very happy.

FRAYER: When the Costa Concordia cruise ship ran aground off Italy's coast last year, more than 30 tourists lost their lives. The tragedy captivated TV viewers for weeks. Similar numbers of Africans die in the Mediterranean every week.

Tens of thousands survive and land in Greece, Italy and Spain, where the reaction by cash-strapped governments has been to try to stop them.

ANDERS LARSON: Too often, the RU member states turn away people who need and have the right to asylum.

FRAYER: Anders Larson, with the Brussels-based European Network Against Racism, says increased security might actually lead to more migrant deaths, as they try to swim around fences; cross the Mediterranean in smaller boats to avoid detection; and become indebted to smugglers. Larson says Europe has to face the role it has played in creating the economic inequality that spurs migration in the first place.

LARSON: The agricultural policies and farm subsidies are really making domestic production collapse in a lot of countries in Africa. You have such cheap food from the EU flooding the African market and causing people to lose their jobs, hundreds and thousands of people.

FRAYER: You also have wars in Syria and Somalia, military conscription in Eritrea and plain old poverty elsewhere. Until that abates, these wild waters of the Mediterranean look inviting to many who are in desperate situations. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Spain.

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CORNISH: This is NPR News.

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