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Deadly passage

The Mediterranean region — Europe’s frontier with Africa — has become one of the most dangerous migratory routes ever, claiming hundreds, possibly thousands, of lives every year.

FODÉ 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 Canary islands.



“Many of them are just
youngsters looking for a
better future. Some are
selected by their own
community to make the dangerous voyage.”




Death 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.

“It’s very dangerous”

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.”

Rising numbers

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.

In 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 dangerous voyage.”

National Societies — especially Red Crescent Societies in the Maghreb — have to think carefully before doing anything beyond providing basic humanitarian services to migrants.



“The 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.

Fairer treatment

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
Alex Wynter is a journalist and editor based in the United Kingdom.


Italian Red Cross on Lampedusa

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.

Humanitarian dilemma
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 overboard.

“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.


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