Cutting through the black night waters of the Mediterranean, a boat carrying Algerian migrants is speeding towards Spain, all of them ready to risk death if it means escaping the despair of their homeland.
“I’d rather die at sea than stay in Algeria,” says Khaled Dih, his eyes dark, and his Nike trainers soaked and full of sand, after landing on a beach at Almeria following a six-hour crossing from Oran.
It was one of around 50 boats that day which made the dangerous crossing from the Algerian coastline which lies 200 kilometres (120 miles) to the south, officials and NGOs said.
“There is nothing there, no work in the bled,” Dih said, using a North African word meaning “the old country”, dragging on a cigarette as he adjusted his ponytail.
Dih chose his 21st birthday to leave, following in the footsteps of thousands of others prepared to risk everything, and then torched their identity papers on arrival to avoid being sent back.
In Arabic, they are known as “harraga” — or “those who burn”.
At least 309 migrants, 13 of them minors, have died in the western Mediterranean since the start of the year, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Dih says the boat was travelling at high speed, bouncing off the water, leaving him stiff and bruised after a night crossing in the freezing cold.
“You couldn’t do anything… so I just thought about my parents and my friends,” says the amateur boxer and fan of French rappers PNL.
– Bruised, exhausted, but alive –
Sat outside the bus station, he is shattered. He has not slept for three nights since leaving Annaba, his hometown on the Algerian coast near the Tunisian border.
From there he travelled 900 kilometres (560 miles) west to the port city of Oran and paid 4,500 euros ($5,200) for passage to Spain — the equivalent of many months’ salary.
Now he’s waiting for a bus to Barcelona from where he will try and enter France, like most of the harraga.
“I don’t speak Spanish… I have family and friends in France so I can’t stay here all on my own,” he explains.
The number of Algerians arriving on Spain’s southeastern coast or the Balearic Isles has soared in recent months.
A confidential document compiled by the Spanish authorities and seen by AFP, shows 9,664 Algerians have illegally entered Spain since the start of the year, or 20 percent more than last year.
According to Frontex, the agency which protects the EU’s external borders, Algerians are the largest group of foreigners entering Spain illegally — and the third-largest in Europe.
On the Algerian side, 4,704 migrants have been stopped trying to leave in 2021, more than half of them in September, the Algerian Defence Ministry says.
And in a new twist, more and more women and children are risking their lives to make the crossing.
“Harraga families is a new phenomenon,” says Said Salhi, deputy head of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights.
Among recent travellers were “mothers and babies, pregnant women and people with disabilities… which shows us something about the extent of despair” in Algeria, he said.
Save the Children said it had taken in more than 100 minors who had arrived in September on the coast of Andalusia, the southern region around Almeria.
– Family anguish –
Back home in Algeria, there is anguish for the families left behind, says Francisco Jose Clemente Martin, 24, who works for CIPIMD, an NGO that tries to trace migrants who have died or gone missing at sea.
Every day, he is in contact with relatives, sometimes having to send them photos of the dead so they can be identified.
“The families are desperate for news,” he told AFP, saying the calls are often marked by “screams, weeping and desperation. Many mothers end up in hospital from the stress. It’s a lot for them to take in”.
Ahmed Bensafia, a 28-year-old who arrived in Almeria a year ago from a town near Algiers, said he didn’t tell his family he was leaving “so as not to worry them”.
He said he had no other choice but to leave because “wages are so low” that even after working all day, “you can’t be sure you can afford to eat dinner”.
But with hindsight he admits he would advise other youngsters “not to risk their lives” as he did.
Even if they manage to avoid the Spanish police, migrants still face a long journey fraught with hardship before reaching family and friends in France.
In early October, three were killed and one seriously hurt when they were hit by a train near Saint-Jean-de-Luz, southwestern France.
They were resting on the tracks to avoid the police when they were caught unawares by the first train of the day, local officials said.
Two days after landing on the Almeria beach, Khaled Dih managed to reach the Spain’s northern border and cross into France.
“I’m relieved,” he told AFP.