Wednesday, May 31, 2006

South Of The Border

An enjoyable weekend in La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands, also provides a connection to one of the main news stories in Spain at the moment. Tourists passing through Los Cristianos, the port in Tenerife where ferries leave for some of the other islands, probably notice the Red Cross tent that has been set up in the waiting area. Whilst they are passing by, they might also notice that some of the boats floating in the port stand out a little from the others; simply constructed long boats decorated with painted symbols or words in an unidentified language. Both the tent and the unfamiliar boats are a consequence of sub-Saharan immigration into the European Union via its southern frontiers.

Until quite recently, most African immigration into Spain came via Morocco. Some managed to cross the ever higher fences surrounding Ceuta and Melilla, the Spanish enclaves in northern Morocco. Others, probably many more, made the dangerous journey by boat across the Strait of Gibraltar. An unknown number have died in the process, the distance is not so great but with a small boat and a dangerous stretch of water (where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean) the risks are very high. Eventually, the Moroccan authorities gave way under Spanish pressure and started to crack down on those who attempted this journey, dumping some of them in the desert far away from the coast and without water or food.

This did not end the attempt to seek a way through, those looking to make the crossing and those who profit from it moved down to what used to be the former colony of Spanish Sahara (now mostly occupied by Morocco). Being further down the African coast the journey to the southern coast of Spain was no longer practical and the target became the Canary Islands – a much longer journey. Boats would carry up to 100 people at a time, again nobody really knows how many did not survive the journey. With further Spanish pressure the boats could no longer leave from here, so the next departure point moved to Mauritania, subsequently to Senegal, and now there is talk that boats are coming from as far away as The Gambia and Guinea Bissau. This means a journey of over 800 kilometres in a boat that may be sturdy but which has no comforts of any kind and which is filled to a dangerous capacity. Because of Spanish pressure on the departure points there are currently very high numbers arriving every day in the Canary Islands in a bid to get there before the current exit port is closed off. In the absence of repatriation agreements with their country of origin, almost all of the arrivals end up being shipped to the Peninsula with a deportation order which is never enforced, left to find a way of surviving without any legal entitlement to work. Many will end up working in jobs where there is no security or decent pay, picking the fruit and vegetables for much of Europe.

The issue is prominent now because the destination where these immigrants can get to has been reduced to Tenerife and surrounding islands, and sometimes several hundred are arriving on the same day. Predictably, the opposition Partido Popular (PP) has tried to take advantage of the situation and create public alarm by linking immigration to crime, anything that might get them that extra point in the opinion polls. There has been substantial publicity over some armed assaults on isolated houses by organised armed gangs, something which has nothing to do with African immigrants but in the search for a convenient scapegoat these details no longer seem to matter. Spain is a significant target for African immigration because of geographical proximity, and of course because it is now much wealthier than before. There are a whole series of jobs in agriculture, construction, restaurants and other sectors where very few Spanish people now work. These jobs are done by immigrants mostly from South America, Africa and Eastern Europe and the result has been a significant increase in the Spanish population in the last few years, it’s something that Spain (traditionally a country of emigration) is going to have to get used to. It’s also something that highlights the frontier between rich and poor in the same way as the border between the US and Mexico – what a pity the resources they devote to border protection can’t be devoted to a bit of wealth creation.

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