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Spain's hard line makes illegal immigration more dangerous

Euro TsunamiEurope and Africa lie just 14km apart across the Straits of Gibraltar which separate Spain from Morocco, but when it comes to living standards, there is no wider gulf between neighbours anywhere in the world. Spain is the world’s eighth-largest economy and the average Spaniard earns $A29,380 a year. Just across the water, Moroccans get by on $A5,253, while people from Morocco’s neighbour, Mali, earn just four percent of annual Spanish salaries.

It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that this juxtaposition of geographical proximity and economic disparity should provoke mass attempts by Africans—predominantly from countries south of the Sahara—to reach Europe by illegal means. What is more surprising is that Europe in general and Spain in particular seem no closer to finding a way to deal with those who clamour at Europe’s gates.

During the last three years, Spain has received a staggering 600,000 immigrants a year. The majority of these arrive legally, encouraged by a Spanish economy on the upswing and by a government struggling to fill the newly created jobs that are driving its economic growth.

But a large number of immigrants to Spain also arrive in leaky boats or by scaling barbed-wire fences.

It used to be that small wooden boats crossing from Morocco to Spain were almost as common as the large ships that pass through the straits, one of the world’s busiest commercial shipping lanes. But after an agreement between the Spanish and Moroccan governments led to unprecedented co-operation—joint patrols, repatriation agreements and aid heading south—between the two countries, the shortest route into Europe was effectively closed to illegal immigration.

Police and forensic experts inspect a boat in Bridgetown, Barbados, where 11 bodies were found in the cabin of the unnamed 20-foot boat. In October last year, the world watched appalled as up to 11,000 sub-Saharan Africans, who had been stranded in Morocco by the new display of Spanish-Moroccan bipartisanship, stormed the border fences surrounding the Spanish enclave of Melilla which is one of two outposts of Europe on the African coast. A few made it across, three were shot dead by Moroccan police and those who were returned across the fence by Spain were dumped in the Sahara Desert by Moroccan police.

With each new crackdown, would-be immigrants were forced further south, further away from Europe, but there were increasing signs that the new policies were merely making the journey to Europe more dangerous, rather than acting as a deterrent. By March, diplomats and NGOs in Mauritania and Senegal were warning that up to half a million illegal immigrants were gathering in the two countries in preparation for the journey to Europe. Most were setting out from Nouadhibou, in northern Mauritania, for the perilous 1,000km journey across the open sea to Spain’s Canary Islands.

In April, the dangers of the new route became apparent when a boat with 11 bodies washed up on the shore of the Caribbean island of Barbados. Investigations revealed that the boat had sailed from Praia in the Cape Verde Islands on Christmas Day. On board were 50 would-be immigrants from Senegal, Guinea-Bissau and Gambia. Each had paid 1,300 euros to a Spanish man to secure illegal passage to Spain’s Canary Islands. Soon after departing Praia, the boat began to encounter difficulties off the Mauritanian coast and the Spanish organiser of the journey was contacted. It appears that the boat was towed for a short distance and then cast adrift with neither food nor water. The towline was reportedly severed by a machete.

By the time the boat arrived off Barbados 135 days later, the boat had drifted 4600km off course and 39 of the immigrants were missing, presumed dead.

The only clues to the identities of the men were an Air Senegal airline ticket and a farewell note written by one of them, Diaw Sounkar Diemi, from Senegal: “Things are bad. I don’t think I will come out of this alive. I need whoever finds me to send this money to my family.”

“Please excuse me and goodbye. This is the end of my life in this big Moroccan sea.”

Since the start of this year alone, more than 18,000 undocumented immigrants have nonetheless arrived in the Canary Islands. The Spanish coast guard estimates that at least 1,200 people have drowned while trying to make the crossing in 2006, among the more than 5,000 who have drowned in the past eight years.

Spain’s government has responded as it always has, with a mixture of pragmatic self-interest and compassion.

Elements of both were apparent in a mass legalisation of illegal immigrants in 2005, followed by a further amnesty earlier this year. Combined, the two moratoriums saw almost 900,000 immigrants receive temporary residence after proving that they had at least a six-month work contract.

The policy saw barely a blip in the popularity levels of the Spanish government. This was due in part to a recent study which showed that Spain—suffering from record low birth-rates and an ageing population—would require 350,000 immigrants every year for the next decade in order to save its social security and pensions system from bankruptcy. Although the government made the legalisation a centrepiece of its policy to combat illegal immigration—the amnesty was time-specific—most analysts agreed that the move would prove more effective in tackling Spain’s enormous underground, non-tax-paying economy.

PBS photo essayBut there have also been suggestions that the Spanish government has no interest in espousing the politics of Fortress Europe or Fortress Australia that its European partners were calling for and which Australians know so well.

In an interview in July, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was asked whether he was worried by ongoing attacks on the government by the opposition and by the Catholic Church. Not at all, said the prime minister. “What worries me are the poor sub-Saharan Africans. The problem of immigration occupies most of my thoughts because I live with an absolute contradiction. I know that we can’t let them all enter, but I would love to provide work for all of them.”

Spain has not relied alone on amnesties or fine sentiments in its bid to reduce the numbers of those risking their lives to reach Spanish shores.

In July, the government shifted its battle against illegal immigration from the high seas to a three-year diplomatic offensive in sub-Saharan Africa. The 600-million-euro Plan Africa includes aid packages for selected African countries in order to boost social and economic development and to thereby ensure that immigrants have fewer reasons to seek a new life in Europe. Other measures included providing assistance to African governments with patrol boats and training programs to improve border surveillance, as well as increasing the number of Spanish embassies in Africa so as to facilitate legal immigration.

Again, the government was keen to avoid the language of anti-immigration paranoia, with Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega acknowledging that “the future of Africa is the future of Spain and of Europe, and the stability and development of our own states is intimately linked to the development and progress of states that are less developed".

But cold-hearted pragmatism also played its part. Under Spanish law, illegal immigrants cannot be deported unless the Spanish government has a repatriation agreement with the countries in question. Although such an agreement exists with Morocco, few African governments have been willing to sign, understanding as they do that remittances from migrants to Europe play an important role in keeping many African economies afloat. An essential pillar of Spain’s Plan Africa involves, therefore, the cajoling of these governments into signing such treaties.

A migrant boy is helped off one of the boats in TenerifeBut still the immigrants come. Almost every week new records are set for the number of single-day, single-week or single-boat arrivals. In July, the issue again became front page news when two very different types of travellers came face-to-face as tourists on a Tenerife beach provided water and blankets to illegal immigrants whose boat had washed ashore until Red Cross emergency workers and police could arrive.

More recently, in late August, Spain’s government came under fire for airlifting more than 8500 illegal immigrants to cities on the Spanish mainland in order to ease the pressure on the Canary Islands, where social services have been stretched to the limit by new arrivals.

Thus it is that many who undertake the dangerous journey to reach Europe find themselves finally standing on the soil of mainland Europe. And thus it is that the Spanish government—like so many governments in Europe—find themselves bereft of a plan as to what to do with illegal immigrants who survive the crossing. After being airlifted to cities like Madrid and Barcelona in more than 300 flights this year, many of the immigrants are given a bottle of water and sandwiches and then left to fend for themselves.

There they subsist as best they can in a twilight zone of legitimacy—illegal, unable to work, unable to be deported and living proof that the gulf dividing Africa and Europe is about so much more than the 14km of open water that separate the two continents.



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