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MIGRATION-SPAIN: ‘What Is Worse, the Risk or a Life Similar to Death?’

Tito Drago

MADRID, May 15 2007 (IPS) - A new wave of African immigrants has left a number of victims behind on the route to Spain’s Canary Islands, where 1,300 undocumented immigrants have arrived in the last five days.

The attempt to make it to Spain claimed the lives of 28 migrants, whose bodies were found on the coasts of the Western Sahara, 40 km north of Laâyoune. The injured are still being counted.

Interior Ministry sources told IPS that two more coastguard vessels will be dispatched to patrol the waters separating the islands from the northwest coast of Africa. Spain has been patrolling the Atlantic Ocean off the shores of Morocco, Western Sahara, Senegal and Mauritania by air and sea since last year.

The sources also said that, in a new departure, the latest boatloads of migrants were carefully orchestrated by human traffickers. “It’s no longer a question of a makeshift craft trying to reach our shores as best it can, but a complex operation involving synchronised movements of vessels,” they said.

The major example of this, later followed by other operations, was on Friday, May 11, when 11 boats arrived within nine hours, eight of them simultaneously at different points along the shorelines of the islands.

The vessels had sailed northwards from places close to Cabo Bojador, in Western Sahara, and after covering 225 kilometres in 25 to 30 hours, they made for the southern tip of the island of Gran Canaria.

Shortly before approaching within 12 nautical miles of the coast, and in order to avoid being detected by the single radar apparatus installed there, they dispersed and made landfall separately, so that Spanish patrol boats would not be able to prevent their arrival.

The police saw several dots on the radar screen, but were not able to determine whether they were small vessels or just “noise” from wave motion. They did, however, stop some of the boats and detained their passengers, while other boats made it to shore.

In any case, once the 12-mile limit is breached, the immigrants are within Spanish territorial waters and cannot be expelled, unless they are nationals of a country that has signed a deportation agreement with Spain, such as Morocco and, more recently, Senegal.

Among the 99 people on a vessel that arrived on Monday night, who were detained, there were 15 under-age children and four women. Sometimes, babies are brought on the dangerous journey because they cannot be deported, no matter their country of origin, and their parents must be allowed to stay in Spain with them.

What is surprising is the number of 14 to 20-year-olds who come, presumably of their own volition. Erik Denabuena of Senegal arrived five years ago, when he was 17, and his argument was as follows.

“I came,” he told IPS, “because here you can get a much better job for much more pay than the work we did as children in my country, either because our parents sent us out to work, or to earn ourselves a few cents.”

Asked whether they were unaware that the crossing put their lives at serious risk, he answered “Yes. Everyone knows. But what is worse, to take that risk, or to live a life that is very similar to death?”

But to secure a place on board the frail craft – although two motor launches have also arrived in the last few days – would-be passengers must pay out between 1,000 and 1,500 dollars. To put together such a sum, entire families save up money however they can.

On Sunday a flat-bottomed boat bearing immigrants arrived in Granada in southern Spain, after crossing the Mediterranean Sea. One of the migrants, Nafiseh, a 24-year-old Ghanaian, made the crossing with her ten-month-old daughter, to rejoin her husband and elder son.

They arrived a year ago and are still living as undocumented immigrants in Spain.

Speaking to the Madrid daily El País, Nafiseh told of her fear during the rough crossing, calling it “utter madness” and recommending that no one take the risk.

In the face of this situation, and despite the fact that Spain continues to need immigrants to fill job vacancies, the government headed by socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero plans to tighten measures to keep out immigrants without a visa.

These measures will include reinforcing surveillance systems and redoubling efforts to negotiate bilateral agreements with other countries, persuading them to accept repatriation of their nationals who try to enter Spain without a visa, or who remain in Spain after their visa has expired.

Actually, this last measure will not cause great difficulty to those who want to get into Spain, because those who enter illegally by sea only make up five percent of the total. Two-thirds of the undocumented immigrants already in Spain actually arrived on tourist visas. Those from Latin America and the Caribbean arrived at airports, and those from Eastern Europe overland.

Secretary of State for Immigration and Emigration Consuelo Rumí, discussing the measures taken by the executive branch, said that “migration pressures will continue to exist as long as the causes are in place – that is, the appalling living conditions on the African continent.”

That is why, she added, in addition to beefing up controls and enforcing the law, Spain is committed to supporting and contributing to the sustainable development of African countries, “and is acting on it, and pushing the European Union as a whole to do so as well.”

Spain will boost its official development aid to poor countries from 0.27 percent of gross domestic product in 2006 to 0.35 percent this year, with the aim of further increasing it to 0.50 percent in 2008. Most of the increase will go to sub-Saharan Africa.

Meanwhile, an Italian patrol boat has been added to the two extra Spanish coastguard vessels off the African coast, as part of Operation Hera 2007, coordinated by the EU border agency, Frontex.

Aminata Traoré, a former culture minister from the West African nation of Mali and the recipient of a prize from the Human Rights Association of Andalusia (APDHA), one of Spain’s 17 provinces, said a few days ago that in fact, it is only “white people and their products that can circulate freely, and they are the only ones who can come to Africa with their trade agreements which impose sanctions on African countries that refuse to let foreign companies in.”

All this, she added, “while the doors to immigration are closed, and people are even being selected, like raw materials are selectedà This is the great paradox. Europe takes everything it wants from Africa, but then it creates a barricade to keep out people from Africa.”

APDHA activist Jesús Roiz asked: “When will the day come when those who are responsible for this will be declared guilty and condemned?”

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