Africa must answer the cries of youth
When Fatim Jawara's family pleaded with her to abandon the perilous journey she had embarked on to cross the Mediterranean, she told them she wanted to "follow her destiny" and fulfil her dreams of playing football in Europe. But the teenage goalkeeper of Gambia's national women's football team never made it to Italy as she planned. She was among at least 239 migrants believed to have died when the rickety boats they were travelling on sank off Libya this week.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR said the reports of mass drownings had been confirmed by two survivors when they came ashore on the Italian island of Lampedusa. More than 3,700 have perished while attempting the same Mediterranean crossing from Libya so far this year, according to the UN.
Gambia is among the top five origin countries of those identified to have used the Libya route to try to get to Europe. Jawara was likely inspired by the story of Gambian teenager Bakery Jatta who was recently signed by football club Hamburger SV after making it across the Mediterranean two years ago.
"I knew that I had to take this difficult and dangerous path of fleeing upon myself if I wanted to have a chance at a future," Jatta told German media.
While the UN says most of those taking the smugglers' boats from Libya are fleeing conflict, there are also others with similar dreams to Jatta and Jawara. The idea of a "chance at the future" is what drives many young Africans - frustrated at the lack of prospects in their own countries - to seek their fortunes in Europe.
For some African leaders, the flow of such young people into the arms of human traffickers is a sad indictment of the failure to provide opportunities at home.
Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank (AfDB) tweeted this week: "239 African migrants just died at sea in Libya. Extremely sad! We must rapidly create jobs in Africa. We must end wasting Africa's future!"
Chair of the African Union Commission Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma acknowledged the challenge at a summit in Malta last November, at which the European Commission established a fund to address migration from Africa by tackling the economic and security dynamics that cause people to flee their homelands.
"It's a small part of the young African population seeking greener pastures, some of whom are running from pockets of wars, difficult situations and poverty," Dlamini-Zuma said. "They believe they may seek asylum and get a better life in Europe."
Ironically the two Irish naval ships that have saved many would-be migrants from a watery grave in the Mediterranean - the LÉ James Joyce and the LÉ Samuel Beckett - as part of an EU search and rescue mission are named after two Irishmen who left Ireland for a better life elsewhere.
Earlier this year, the AfDB announced a new initiative called Jobs for Africa's Youth to foster inclusive growth and help the continent's huge young demographic - some two-thirds of the population are under 30 - to realise their economic potential, thereby reducing migration.
Africa "must take a proactive stance and not just manage today's migration crisis - but avoid tomorrow's," Adesina said.
"We must invest in building a future for Africa's youth in which they can participate with pride and prosper. Stable, high quality employment for Africa's youth is the answer."
The AfDB initiative will focus on creating jobs for rural youth and producing young entrepreneurs to oversee commercial agriculture and agribusiness, considered a key growth area.
The hope is that this can also stem the internal migration from the countryside to cities that has put a strain on many African countries.
In urban areas, there are plans to build partnerships between industry and graduates aimed at better equipping young Africans for the labour market and encouraging them to have more innovation and entrepreneurial spirit.
The AfDB anticipates that the ambitious Jobs for Africa's Youth Initiative will reach more than 50 million over a 10-year period and stimulate the creation of 25 million jobs.
"It will add an additional $30 billion (€26.9bn) to African economies," said Adesina.
"It will help us to stem the tide of migration within Africa and into Europe. We will keep Africa's youth in Africa by expanding economic opportunities. This will help Africa to turn its demographic asset into an economic dividend.
"The young people should not be migrating, at great risk, to Europe. We need them in our industries, not on the high seas."