Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Spain's hard line makes illegal immigration more dangerous

  • 04 September 2006

Europe 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. 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