OUAKAM BEACH, Senegal (Reuters) - Like the fabled El Dorado, Europe glitters over the horizon for many poor Africans with its promise of jobs, a better life and escape from poverty.
Lured by this seductive mirage, tens of thousands of Africans trek every year across the deserts of the Sahara or brave the whitecaps of the Atlantic in do-or-die bids to reach Spain or Italy and slip illegally into "fortress" Europe.
"If you're a fisherman here, you're always dreaming of over there," said Ybra Ndiaye, 55, gesturing north over the blue-green waters off Ouakam Beach on Senegal's Cap Vert peninsula. Colorfully painted wooden fishing boats line the strip of sand nestling between rocks and towering cliffs.
This small Lebou fishing community lies adjacent to Les Mamelles, two breast-shaped hills outside the capital Dakar that served for centuries as landmarks for European navigators and explorers -- Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French and British -- as they probed southwards down the West African coast.
But these days most human traffic heads north in flotillas of rickety open boats like those on Ouakam Beach.
Wooden craft like these landed more than 30,000 illegal African migrants on the Spanish Canary Islands last year and sent European governments scrambling to try to stem the flood. Authorities believe several thousand Africans die each year trying to migrate to Europe.
Joint air and sea patrolling by EU members has slowed the exodus this year but migration will still be a thorny issue at a Europe-Africa summit this weekend in Lisbon, where African leaders will press for more access to Europe for their citizens.
But however many legal work permits European governments agree to grant -- Spain has just announced 2,700 for Senegalese -- this will not be enough to satisfy the hundreds of thousands of Africans who view Europe as the gateway to prosperity.
"I was born here, I grew up here ... but if I could work for a little in Europe, I could improve things for myself," said Mbissine Thiam, 33, who last year steered a fishing boat packed with 96 illegal migrants in an 11-day voyage to the Canaries.
He was repatriated by Spain, along with several thousand others, but is adamant he will try again.
"While I live, sooner or later, I'll go back," Thiam said. "I'm dreaming of it."
A study commissioned by the International Organization for Migration on another Dakar fishing community at Yoff this year found that 90 percent of those questioned believed Europe was "better than here" and offered jobs, money and luxury.
"You hear everyone talking about the fight against poverty, but we don't see it," said Ndiaye, pointing to the boat-lined refuse-strewn beach and bedraggled fishermen's homes and shacks that make up the Ouakam community, clustered around the towering green-and-white minarets of an imposing large mosque.
Many young West African males, especially the Senegalese, say the social pressure of being expected to provide for a large extended family forces them to risk their lives to seek employment in Europe, the world's largest trading bloc.
That dream of a better life cuts across most social classes on the world's poorest continent.
"There's no work here, I would go," said Vivienne Sambo, a Dakar University literature student.
"But I would come back," she added.
Many Africans want Europe to open up its borders.
"If you continue to stop the migrants, it will lead to hatred for those countries. Once you tighten borders, they will find other means to enter," said Liberian Samuel Togba, 26.
But if their African homeland could offer the same job and wealth opportunities as Europe, some young Africans say they would think twice before risking their lives to migrate.
Yet they looked to Europe to provide investment and training in Africa to create these opportunities.
"Europe should invest in Africa, if they do that people will stay," said 29-year-old Senegalese maintenance worker Youssou Coly, who said Europeans owed a debt to the African continent for their past colonization.
"There was slavery. Europeans took our ancestors. There was forced labor," he said.
Spain has been offering aid and investment to West African states in return for their cooperation in helping to stem the migrant exodus to its shores. The EU has opened a job centre in Mali to provide information about legal migration to Europe.
But many are skeptical about how long it will take for Africa to rival Europe in job and wealth opportunities.
"This El Dorado for Africans is in their heads," said Adyas Eboussi, 21, a student at the ISM management school in Dakar.
"We should be thinking, we're happy here, that's what should change," he said.
Editing by Nick Tattersall and Mary Gabriel