ANNABA, Algeria (Reuters) - When his son vanished in the Mediterranean two years ago, Kamel Belabed struggled to understand why the educated 25-year-old, his partner in a small communications business, had risked his life to reach Europe.
Searching out relatives of others lost at sea, Belabed found a reality that belied the European cliche of unskilled, jobless migrants trying to escape dire poverty. Many of those leaving Algeria were frustrated professionals chafing at the lack of opportunity at home.
The thousands who paid traffickers for passage to Italy on small boats included lawyers, civil servants, police officers and university lecturers, some in their 50s, he said.
“To my knowledge, I have not found anyone who left because he was hungry,” said Balabed. “It’s about human dignity. People do not accept injustice.”
Algerians say their education system has improved greatly since independence in 1962 but the oil and gas-based economy has failed to create enough jobs worthy of their qualifications.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has promised a national development programme worth $150 billion if he wins April elections, and political allies say the plan should focus on giving young Algerians jobs and a feeling of security.
Social problems remain profound and the government is still struggling to restore hope to a population scarred by the decade-long Islamist insurgency.
Unemployment stands officially at 11 percent but is estimated at more than 70 percent among people under 30.
Even those with jobs often complain of a rigid society dominated by a small, well-connected minority that monopolizes opportunities for advancement.
Up to half Algeria’s young men are tempted by illegal migration to Europe, a 2008 survey by the independent daily Liberte showed, but it has never been harder to leave.
European states under pressure to slow illegal arrivals have installed costly radar and redoubled coastal patrols, forcing migrants to take longer, riskier routes to avoid detection.
Belabed’s son Marouane had a good job, but was frustrated after trying for years to visit friends and family in France and always being denied a visa. In April 2007, an acquaintance told him there was space on a migrant boat.
Balebed thinks Marouane agreed because of “the systematic refusal to grant a visa without any explanation.”
“He had family abroad and wanted to see the world from another angle ... He must have been sick of it all and decided on an impulse to spread his wings.”
Tales of do-or-die fervor and images of dead bodies washed up on beaches have earned the migrants a nickname in Algeria — Harragas, an Arabic word meaning “those who burn.”
Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia last month called illegal migration a “crisis, even a national tragedy...”
“It is shameful to see young Harragas throw themselves to the sea when the best they can hope is to arrive alive at the other end to fulfill tasks in poverty, in semi slavery,” he said.
Official figures show that 1,500 Algerians were arrested in 2007 trying to leave the country illegally for Europe.
Campaigners give numbers that are far higher, and Belabed said that on just one day last year, 600 migrants set off for Italy, a figure he said Italian authorities confirmed. There are no figures for the number that drown.
Marketing graduate Belbai Abdelghani, 28, waited five months for the right weather to leave for Europe where he hoped to find a job and stop living off his father, a retired war veteran.
With a group of acquaintances, he bought a small boat, an engine and GPS positioning device and set off just before sunrise from Sidi Salem beach east of Annaba with 17 young men.
“Beforehand, we prayed to Allah to protect us. And, believe it or not, we were happy and some were even singing, thinking that a better life was possible on the other side of the sea.”
Their low, six-meter wooden boat avoided coastguard radar, the sea was calm and they landed 240 km (150 miles) further north on the Italian island of Sardinia, only to be arrested and taken to a detention center in the city of Bari.
“The center was full of Algerians, Tunisians, Moroccans and Iraqis,” said Abdelghani. “We tried to escape, but failed and the Italian authorities sent us back to Algeria.”
Writing by Tom Pfeiffer, editing by Tim Pearce