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IMMIGRATION-SPAIN: No Way to Fence Off the Sea

Alicia Fraerman

MADRID, May 8 2006 (IPS) - An unusually heavy influx of undocumented immigrants, who arrived on the coasts of Spain’s Canary Islands over the weekend, has highlighted the ineffectiveness of wire fences and other police measures designed to keep people from sub-Saharan Africa from seeking a better life in Europe.

Between Friday and Monday, the Civil Guard and local police intercepted and detained more than 500 people who arrived in Spain in canoes and “pateras” (precarious, low-floating wooden boats designed for shallow waters). Most were coming from Mauritania and Morocco.

On Apr. 30, the Civil Guard’s radar picked up another patera with 62 migrants on board, two miles south of Tenerife Island – part of the Canary Islands, which are located off the northwest coast of Africa.

The migrants were travelling in overcrowded boats, and half were treated for hypothermia, exhaustion and bruises upon arrival at the port of Los Cristianos.

Police sources stated that the arrival of 259 immigrants in fewer than 15 hours on Saturday is the third major wave of undocumented immigrants to reach Spain this year. Another 372 people arrived on Mar. 13, followed by 314 additional immigrants the next day.

But not every would-be immigrant makes it. A report released by Spanish police in December 2005 estimated that between 1,200 and 1,700 lives are lost annually in these hazardous crossings. Last April, another 32 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, who had set out from the north of Mauritania in the direction of the island, drowned when their boat sank.

Last weekend, quick action by local police and volunteers prevented a repeat of this tragedy, when high seas overturned a boat carrying 38 immigrants just off the coast of Tenerife Island.

Spanish police intelligence reports released in the past few days predict that fresh waves of boats could be hitting Canary Island beaches soon.

The government spokesman for the Autonomous Community of the Canary Islands, Miguel Becerra, said Sunday that the archipelago “is under heavy migration pressure” and feels “unprotected” against the great numbers of undocumented immigrants who have arrived in the past few days.

“It is unbelievable” that more than 400 people arrived in the space of 48 hours, and that their boats were detected only once they were within two or three miles of the Canary Island coast, he said.

Becerra considers immigration “a State problem” and called on the Spanish government, headed by socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, to step up control “over maritime borders.”

This is already being done, according to Spain’s Interior Minister José Antonio Alonso.

In the Senate Friday, Alonso announced that the executive branch had decided to provide Tenerife with an electronic surveillance system known as SIVE, to help deal with the flood of immigrants. The system has already been installed in the neighbouring Lanzarote, Fuerteventura and Grand Canary islands.

“This system facilitates more effective control of irregular maritime immigration, enabling more rapid action in critical situations,” noted Alonso.

SIVE is backed up by calls from mobile surveillance units that make it possible to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and variations in migratory routes, the minister explained. Three of these mobile units will be purchased this year and deployed to the Canary Islands, he added.

In Ceuta and Melilla, Spanish enclaves in northern Africa that border on Morocco, twin fences, five metres apart, topped with barbed wire and equipped with cutting-edge surveillance technology have failed to prevent the entry of undocumented immigrants.

Despite these drastic measures, Secretary of State for Immigration and Emigration Consuelo Rumí estimates that one million new undocumented foreigners are living in Spain, only one year after an amnesty went into effect.

Non-governmental organisations concur with the official numbers.

Between Feb. 7 and May 7 of 2005, approximately 700,000 foreigners applied to legalise their status in the country, taking advantage of the new immigration law approved Dec. 30, 2004.

However, Rumí called the process “very positive,” because it has led to “the toughest crackdown on the country’s black market.”

According to her information, as of May 2 Spain’s social security system had approved 577,049 of the 691,655 applications submitted during the government amnesty, approximately 80,000 were rejected, and the rest are on file or being processed.

Rumí also emphasised that the black market is bad for both immigrants and for Spanish society as a whole, because the former “are exploited,” while employees “in the underground economy do not declare or pay taxes or contribute to the welfare state.”

But the key issue is that problems related to people desperately seeking a better life far from their impoverished homelands cannot be solved by one country or region alone.

This is the opinion of Spain’s Secretary of State for International Relations for Iberoamerica, Bernardino León, who told IPS that “the great global debate on immigration to be held in Rabat, Morocco next summer û spearheaded by Spain and Morocco û could lead to concrete solutions.”

“Solutions that should not and cannot be the responsibility of a single country or government, because this is a global problem that concerns us all, and we need to face it together,” he explained. A major factor, concluded León, is global cooperation to ensure that countries of the South are able to develop in a way that encourages social integration.

But the 2nd World Social Migrations Forum, set for Jun. 22-24 in Rivas Vaciamadrid, near the Spanish capital, could prove to be even more encompassing. More than 1,300 members of 750 non-governmental organisations from 75 countries will be participating. Ignacio Díaz de Aguilar, president of the Spanish Committee for Refugee Assistance, one of the organisers, told IPS that it will be the second meeting of its kind, following an event in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, and that Spain was chosen as the next host because “it is an international symbol of the migratory phenomenon.”

“In a short time it has received four million foreigners and has one of the most dramatic borders” in the world, he noted.

Díaz Aguilar also pointed out that the mere 14 kilometres û the Strait of Gibraltar û that separate the Moroccan and Spanish coasts highlight the radical income gaps of the majority of the population.

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