The AMWCY helps young Africans seeking work and adventure by offering advice, contacts and vocational training to ensure a better future. Picture: Mike Dibetsoe

Dakar, Senegal – Torn between staying at home in Nigeria to help his widowed mother or setting off to find work to fund an engineering course, teenager James Boyon was undecided until he met a group of like-minded peers.

They helped Boyon to make money selling sewing materials to tailors in his village – enabling him to both support his mother and fulfil his ambition of becoming an engineer – and introduced him to a network of young people that stretches across Africa.

Ten years on and Boyon now works for the organisation – the African Movement of Working Children and Youth (AMWCY) – which helps young Africans who work, travel and migrate within the continent, offering advice, contacts and vocational training.

"The group helped me to find my way in life. It tells youths about others' experiences to help them decide where to go, what to do, and how they can achieve their goals," 26-year-old Boyon told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the AMWCY's Dakar office.

While the plight of African migrants struggling to reach Europe, alongside thousands fleeing violence in the Middle East, has stirred international concern, the vast majority of Africans who leave their home countries remain on the continent.

Some escape conflict, others flee political unrest and persecution, but many, especially young people, are encouraged by families to leave home in order to gain an education, learn a skill or trade and earn money to send home, according to Boyon.

"If you don't go, you are seen as useless, or a loser," said the AMWCY child protection officer, chuckling to his colleagues.

FROM MAURITANIA TO MADAGASCAR

The network, which was founded in 1994 in Ivory Coast and receives funding from the UN and aid agencies, counts more than 270 000 active members across 27 countries, reaching from Mauritania to Madagascar.

"We refer to AMWCY as the missing pillar – because they are a grassroots organisation, they know what is happening on the ground and they listen to and understand young people," said Plan International regional media specialist Florence Cissé.

The AMWCY is not just limited to capitals and major cities – it has members and volunteers in villages, towns and regions where young people tend to migrate from, and promotes itself via word of mouth, newsletters, social media and radio shows.

For those planning to move, the organisation makes them aware of the potential dangers they may encounter, warns them against trying to travel too far, and stays in touch with the young migrants during their journeys through texts and calls.

The group also offers vocational training and the chance to learn a profession, ranging from hairdressing and soapmaking to carpentry and even comic book design, or start a small business, by providing loans and encouraging youths to work together.

Having left school at the age of 10 to support her family, Awa was selling seashells on the beach in Dakar when she was introduced to the network, which helped to bring together youths in her area.

With the support of the AMWCY, they learned to sew, received French lessons and literacy classes to improve their reading and writing, and were taught about sexual and reproductive health.

"Just because you haven't been to school or university, you shouldn't just cross your arms, stay idle or let your head drop... you can make something happen and share your experience with others, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"We (young workers) are not intellectuals, but we are very intelligent."

CHAIN OF SOLIDARITY

Across the continent, West Africa had the largest concentration and number of migrants as of 2009, around 8 4 million people, according to the latest figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) allows people to move openly between member states, giving young Africans the freedom to live, study and work across borders.

While the majority of young people the AMWCY work with tend to move within Africa, some find the allure of life in Europe too hard to resist, said Aimé Bada, who runs the organisation's vocational training programmes.

"We never say: 'You shouldn't go, don't move'.

"But we always tell young people to think about where they are going and to ensure they have contacts there... they should have different options and avenues to help them survive."

With European Union and African heads of state due to meet in Malta next month to discuss the migration crisis, the lack of economic possibilities in Africa must be addressed or the number of people trying to reach Europe will increase, experts say.

"Raising awareness is often discussed, but informing migrants of the challenges and dangers of heading to Europe is useless if you do not offer any alternatives," IOM Senegal head of office Jo-Lind Roberts told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Moving within the continent in pursuit of prosperity has long been ingrained in the fabric of African culture, yet some nations are clamping down on migration amid concerns over poverty, unemployment and the rise of Islamist militant groups.

Yet sitting in Dakar, a world away from the summits and policymaking, Boyon and his colleagues are focused solely on the safety and happiness of what they call their "big family".

"Our mission is to give hope, protection and opportunity to the people we work with... we are a chain of solidarity."