In Mali's northern city of Gao, a key transit point for illegal African migrants, candidates lining up in hopes of taking off for Europe are getting younger and younger.
Among them are Seydou Kande, 12, Idrissa M'Balo, 14, and Moussa Diallo, 16.
Ten youthful hopefuls, most of them hailing from Senegal, sit huddled together in the courtyard of the house of a human trafficker some 1,220km northeast of the Malian capital Bamako.
Pushed out of Algeria, Morocco or Libya after failed attempts at jumping the borders into Europe, they are currently grounded in Gao but all are contemplating another go across the vast Sahara desert.
"What we notice these days is that with an average age of 15 years, illegal African migrants are increasingly younger," said Mamadou Diakite, head of a local NGO, AIDE, studying migration trends.
"There are several reasons for this. Firstly, the youths are only following the footsteps of their elders," he said.
Secondly "there is also unemployment, which hits the youths hard. But it is also a strategy. Because of child protection laws, the very young are not systematically sent back to their countries once they manage to land on European soil," he said.
Idrissa, 14, comes from Casamance in southern Senegal. One morning three years ago, his parents gave him 100,000 CFA francs (US$195) and told him "go find your way to Europe. If you do not succeed to go, do not come back here again."
In the company of scores of other Senegalese, the tough journey begins for little Idrissa: train from Dakar to Bamako, freight vehicle to reach the city of Gao located on the edge of the Sahara desert. He crossed Algeria by truck, and then Morocco.
Five months of exhausting travel punctuated by small jobs here and there only led to a smuggler who swindled them, and they were forced to make a U-turn to Gao.
"I'm ready to set out again. I cannot return to Senegal, my parents will curse me," Idrissa. said.
Gathered in Gao, in the city's ghetto dwellings, several hundred young Africans survive from day to day, hand to mouth, without sufficient money to set out on their first -- or make a new -- attempt to reach Europe.
"I really want to go back home. But to return empty-handed? It is better to die than go back empty-handed," said a young Guinean.