Mediterranean region — Europe’s frontier with
Africa — has become one of the most dangerous migratory
routes ever, claiming hundreds, possibly thousands, of lives
CAMARA, a 41-year-old father of three from Guinea-Bissau,
took the ‘easy’ route to Spain’s Canary
Islands while it was still open: direct from Western Sahara.
A sea voyage of exactly 100 kilometres to Fuerteventura, the
island nearest Africa, on one simple heading: northwest. “We
set off at five in the morning and by seven that evening we
were in Spain,” he recalls.
When they landed, the Spanish police tried to find out who’d
been steering the patera, a small, open fishing boat. No one
spoke. People-smugglers, sometimes just assumed to be the
helmsmen of migrant vessels, face five years in jail if convicted
by Spanish courts.
In the early days of the influx, says Gerardo Mesa Noda,
president of the Spanish Red Cross’s Fuerteventura branch,
there were cases of smugglers panicking and forcing their
passengers overboard once land was sighted.
For Mesa Noda, a retired banker and a deeply humane and thoughtful
man who keeps a careful record of both migrant arrivals and
confirmed deaths, the desperation he sees week in, week out
is, above all, a measure of the crisis in Africa. “The
world must know what’s been happening here,” he
says. “People do not take these risks for nothing.”
In a sense, Fodé Camara had already worked his way
to Europe. “I spent two years in Morocco trying to raise
the money for the voyage,” he says. He got lucky when
an American film company arrived to make Black Hawk Down using
Moroccan locations and he was hired as an extra. But that
was in 2001. He hasn’t seen his family for seven years.
The tall Guinean has mastered Spanish in his time in the
Canary Islands but is now suspended in a legal limbo, barred
from seeking work; yet, under Spanish law, he cannot be returned
to Guinea-Bissau as there’s no bilateral repatriation
agreement with Madrid. Like many sub-Saharan migrants, Camara
fled poverty and the diffuse conflict that is often random
in its impact in Africa. But he’s not officially a refugee
nor even seeking temporary humanitarian protection. He simply
wants to work in Spain.
A would-be immigrant collapses on Gran Tarajal beach after
arriving on the Island of Fuerteventura, one of Spain’s
©REUTERS / JUAN MEDINA, COURTESY www.alertnet.org
“Many of them are just
youngsters looking for a
better future. Some are
selected by their own
community to make the dangerous voyage.”
on the water
Magat Jope, 34, an electrician from Senegal, borrowed US$
1,100 from his mother to get on a migrant boat to the Canary
Islands earlier this year, but was not so lucky. He was one
of the many thousands of Africans forced by a Moroccan crackdown
on illegal migration from Western Sahara to try the longer
and much more dangerous route to the Canaries from Mauritania
(and most recently even Senegal).
Migrants in cayucos (flat-hulled African fishing canoes)
set off from near Nouadhibou, Mauritania’s northernmost
port, and follow a difficult coastal leg of some 500 kilometres,
along the entire length of Western Sahara, before striking
out into the Atlantic for Gran Canaria and Tenerife.
Washington Post correspondent Kevin Sullivan reported from
Mauritania that after four days of seasickness and constant
bailing, Jope’s leaky boat was intercepted by the Moroccan
coastguard and towed back to Nouadhibou. Some of the passengers
swam ashore and ran, to avoid being repatriated.
Jope later heard other friends had drowned when their cayuco,
carrying nearly 30 people, sank at night. Deathon the water,
as Sullivan put it, kept the gravediggers of Nouadhibou busy
early this year.
Throughout 2005, African would-be migrants streamed into
Nouadhibou, by tradition an open and cosmopolitan town, boosting
its population from 90,000 to an estimated 100,000.
Father Jerome Otitoyomi Dukiya remembers early last year
when an excited young man rushed into his office with the
news that a group had made it all the way to Las Palmas in
a cayuco. The Nigerian missionary, who has worked in Nouadhibou
for four years, is well placed to evaluate the scale of the
humanitarian crisis surrounding this kind of irregular migration.
He says no one can give exact figures but “there is
always information”, he told Red Cross Red Crescent
magazine in a telephone interview from Nouadhibou.
“It’s very dangerous, very risky. Do you realize
how many people we’ve lost? The first thing they do
is try to contact someone to say they’ve arrived,”
he says. “And then it becomes the talk of the town.”
The Mauritanian Red Crescent’s Ahmed Ould Haye, using
information from a variety of sources, including Spanish ones,
gives an estimate that 1,200 migrants had died at sea in a
five-month period from November 2005.
News reports from the Canary Islands, where many more migrants
arrived in the first five months of 2006 than in the whole
of 2005, said one in three boats sailing from Mauritania was
lost at sea. Father Jerome, frustrated that by its very nature
this tragedy cannot be measured properly, says the true numbers
could be much worse. “I think it could be 30 per cent
who do make it,” he says.
A woman holds her baby in an ambulance on the island of Fuerteventura
after her boat was intercepted by authorities.
©REUTERS / JUAN MEDINA, COURTESY www.alertnet.org
the early months of 2006, with the exodus from Mauritania
fully under way, stories of tragedy on the high seas soon
began to abound. The impoverished nation’s only search-and-rescue
cutter found a boat which had apparently set sail from the
southern Mauritanian port of St. Louis, 600 kilometres further
away from the Canary Islands. It had been at sea for two weeks.
Of the more than 40 people on board, half were dead.
Rickard Sandell, a migration specialist at Madrid’s
Royal Elcano Institute, a research organization, said the
frontier between Europe and Africa had become “one of
the most dangerous migratory passages ever”.
On land, the Spanish Red Cross and the Nouadhibou branch
of the Mauritanian Red Crescent established a humanitarian
assistance programme for migrants held by the local authorities
in a newly-built centre. Three Spanish delegates and 15 Red
Crescent volunteers provided water and hot food, medical care,
blankets, hygiene kits, clothes and free telephone calls.
“Many of the migrants have survived mishaps at sea,”
says Jaime Bará Viñas, head of the Africa section
of the Spanish Red Cross, who was in Mauritania earlier this
year. National Societies acknowledge the need to give humanitarian
assistance, but no one wants to create a ‘pull factor’
that attracts more irregular migrants into making deadly voyages.
“These people are not criminals,” argues Bará.
“Many of them are just youngsters looking for a better
future. Some are selected by their own community to make the
National Societies — especially Red Crescent Societies
in the Maghreb — have to think carefully before doing
anything beyond providing basic humanitarian services to migrants.
world must know
what’s been happening
here. People do not take
these risks for nothing.”
Medical workers help a would-be immigrant caught on a makeshift
boat near the Canary island of Fuerteventura.
©REUTERS / JUAN MEDINA, COURTESY www.alertnet.org
Helene Lackenbauer, the International Federation’s
specialist on migration issues, argues that sub-Saharan Africans
have largely not benefited from the huge increase in primary
immigration into the European Union over the past decade,
which, in the case of Spain, for example, has pushed the estimated
number of international migrants from just over 1 million
in 1995 to nearly 4.8 million in 2005, or 11.1 per cent of
the population, according to United Nations figures.
“Rich countries still hand-pick migrants,” she
says, “consciously only taking, say, IT [information
technology] professionals from India or medical personnel
from Africa. At the same time unskilled irregular migrants
actually prop up entire sectors like agriculture, building
and catering in some countries — and for lower wages
than they would get if their status were regularized.”
Lackenbauer would like to see more labour programmes for
workers from the regions that provide most of the Mediterranean’s
boat migrants. “Then they could apply for a work permit,
rather than risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean in
unseaworthy boats. This would also guarantee that their basic
rights in immigration countries would be honoured.”
Alex Wynter is a journalist and editor based in the
Italian Red Cross
Five thousand kilometres around the great arc of the north-western
African coast, in the central Mediterranean, is the tiny Italian
island of Lampedusa — closer to Tunisia than Sicily
and another key location of the crisis surrounding irregular
migration in the region.
Here, too, in 2006, far more irregular migrants were arriving
month by month than last year.
In 2004 and 2005 Italy was accused of breaking the 1951 United
Nations Refugee Convention by deporting boat migrants from
Lampedusa without properly ascertaining whether any of them
were refugees. Exactly what happened on Lampedusa was not
independently verified as the island was closed to humanitarian
agencies. But in February this year the Italian Red Cross,
the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the
International Organization for Migration were allowed to open
a joint office at the government’s temporary reception
centre at the island’s small airport.
Nowhere to go
Italian Red Cross nurses now look after women and children
at the centre, no more than a little cluster of aviation buildings
and shipping containers turned into sleeping quarters sandwiched
between the runway and neat rows of olive and fig trees and
grape vines. Its flimsy barbed-wire perimeter fence would
not trouble a determined escapee, but on Lampedusa —
3 kilometres wide and 11 kilometres long — there’s
nowhere to go.
In a spartan side room at the centre, Ajana, from Ghana, remembers
her head spinning from discomfort and fear after a day crammed
into the boat she shared with about ten other Africans on
the voyage. Next to her, sitting up in bed, is Gifti, who
got on the boat despite being 38 weeks pregnant. A married
couple share a bunk bed in another corner.
None of the Ghanaians is quite sure who was steering the
small vessel that got them to Lampedusa. But Ajana remembers
that when she was woken by the sound of an Italian coastguard
helicopter, the other passengers were saying that after land
was sighted two smugglers — who they believed to be
Egyptian — had transferred to a second vessel that had
been trailing them, then turned around and gone back.
Aid workers in North Africa and on Italian islands agree that
people-smuggling in this part of the Mediterranean is much
better organized than it was even two years ago. There is
some reason to believe the death rate may be lower.
Antonieta Maltese is deputy head of the Italian Red Cross’s
Agrigento branch on the south coast of Sicily and in charge
of the voluntary nurses who work with arriving migrants in
a school gym. She is one of many humanitarian workers in the
region who have noticed that irregular migrants arriving on
Italian islands are in relatively good condition: dehydration
is rare, as is the crippling stiffness typical of Canary Island
boat migrants that can also be fatal if they fall or are pushed
“I haven’t used an intravenous drip for months,”
says Stefano Valentini, the Medici Senza Frontiere (MSF) physician
on Lampedusa, a veteran of MSF operations in Africa who tends
to newly arrived migrants on the coastguard jetty and who,
like Gerardo Mesa Noda, keeps a careful record of them.
There are now strong suspicions (if not evidence) that people-smugglers
are using larger vessels to cover the bulk of the distance
from Libya, then transferring migrants to smaller boats which
are too fragile to be turned back at sea for the final leg
to the Italian coast.