The desperate plight of a dispossessed people

The seizure of three boatloads of African migrants off the Canary Islands highlights the human anguish behind the immigration debate
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The Independent Online
YOU MIGHT call it an invasion. Given the climate of public paranoia, perhaps the word armada comes to mind. But do those words square with the evidence of one's eyes?

This was another huge weekend for Africans in the Canaries. More than 7,000 illegal immigrants from Africa clambered ashore in these islands last year, mostly on Fuerteventura which is the closest of the islands to the African coast. That's 20 per day on average. Around Christmas, terrible tragedies were reported - a boat with 10 corpses aboard, all dead of cold and thirst, another with 13 dead among dozens who were barely alive.

Then came a lull of more than two weeks. No arrivals at all, though the Atlantic from here to Laayoune, the nearest port in Western Sahara, was playfully mild under balmy, cobalt blue skies. It's the manoeuvres, suggested the man at the Red Cross. The Spanish and Portuguese navies were reported to be doing joint manoeuvres in the channel, trying out new radar with laser gear, trying to monitor the African coast as precisely as they would a harbour. Perhaps the new kit was working. Perhaps they'd fixed another hole.

Nothing of the sort: the deluge began again last week. First on Thursday one of the little pateras, the migrants' boats, arrived in the far south of the island, at a place with fabulously broad, long, sandy beaches, lined with the apartments of Germans and Britons, called Morro del Jable. Thirty-two on board it was reported, though it beggars the imagination how: you would hesitate to row your family across a municipal pond in this vessel.

The big one arrived on Saturday, this time in Tenerife and in a fashion that has only been tried four or five times since the big rush began five years ago: a rusty old fishing boat shorn of its lifting gear was arrested 150 yards off the port of Tenerife: a two-man white crew sped off in a launch, leaving 227 sub-Saharan Africans, nearly all young men, squashed into the boat. Some were reported to be hungry and suffering from hypothermia but the condition of most was good.

Then two more yesterday, tiddlers like Thursday's, so similar they might have been hammered together by the same carpenter. Twelve or 14ft in length, bare, unvarnished wooden ribs clad in a hull of box wood, plastered in a greenish tar-like material to keep out at least some of the ocean. Twenty or 30 Africans in each, all of them young, all male, apparently from Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Nigeria. The last of the fleet is now tied up on the quayside under my hotel window in Puerto del Rosario, the main town of Fuerteventura. On the quay, the Red Cross inflated a pneumatic tent where the Africans are being checked by medics.

Neither "armada" nor "invasion" describes it: if this is an invasion it's one of the weak,the desperate, those for whom home has become a place of terminal hopelessness.

For the arrivals, it was the end of a harrowing adventure that cost each one all the money he possessed and probably the savings of his relatives as well. It could have ended in death or prison at any point.

The Africans whose journeys end in the Canaries sneak across fiercely guarded borders, hide in the dunes of the Sahara, get passed from one gang of traffickers to another, ripped off by each group in turn. Somehow they avoid detection by police and soldiers. They survive hunger and thirst in the desert, their lives at the mercy of smugglers for whom they are no more than pieces of merchandise, their lives of even less account than those of the slaves who left those shores 200 years ago.

At the coast, sometimes after an agony of waiting, they are packed into these pathetic little handmade boats - often constructed amid the dunes, dozens of miles from the coast, to avoid detection - until no more will fit in. They were allowed to bring nothing with them except the clothes they stood up in: any document proving their nationality could lead to their prompt deportation. And by the end of the hideous overland journey - which might have taken many months - they no longer had any possessions in any case.

And all this sacrifice for what? To make landfall in a Europe which could not make its distaste for them and everything they represent more plain. The face mask and sanitary gloves of the Red Cross volunteers in Tenerife who bundled them in blankets to bring them back to life are merely sensible precautions against disease. But metaphorically, the masks and gloves will pursue them every mile of their European passage.

Spain will quarantine them for 40 days, and then deport all those that it legally can. Those it cannot physically deport it will notionally expel: the only bit of paper the migrants take away from the detention centre is an expulsion order.

As the Canaries are rapidly filling up, Spain now packs the Africans into a plane, flies them to Madrid and other big cities and sets them free. Or rather, washes its hands of them. They remain penniless, without documents giving them even the most fragile legitimacy, unable to work except in the black sector. "The only work available to them," says the head of the Red Cross in Fuerteventura, "is crime and prostitution."

Spain is marginally moderating these harsh conditions today: if they have been in the country for six months and by some miracle have persuaded a legitimate employer to take them on, they can get documents to allow them to remain in the country legally. This drop of humanity - and economic common sense, for the immigrants will at last begin to pay tax and make social security contributions - has been greeted by howls of outrage from Spain's right-wing opposition, which has linked the new rules with the latest arrivals. It has drawn dismay from Spain's EU partners, which moan that the illegal immigrants thus sanitised will be free to spread across the union.

How about Britain? No comment was forthcoming. But the Janus faces of British government policy towards Africa could not be more blindingly evident. On the one hand, Gordon Brown proposes a bold new policy designed to save Africa from ruination - though Africa specialists attack his proposal to funnel billions of aid into the continent as one that has failed Africa before. And, on the other hand, the new elevated entry conditions for asylum seekers - Labour's latest ploy in the bidding war with the Tories over which can boast the most aggressive anti-immigration policy - show where the real urge lies. Keep well away!

The Canaries, meanwhile, are full of fugitives of a different sort, and there is no stopping these ones. But the mass arrival of German and British refugees from the north European winter in Fuerteventura's flashy new airport is hardly news down here on the west African coast. It merits a brief, preening note in the Tenerife newspapers when newly published figures reveal that foreign tourists in the islands topped five million for the first time last year. The swarms of northern visitors have changed Fuerteventura beyond recognition in the past 20 years. The island's population has soared from 20,000 to 90,000 today. Entire volcanic cliffs looking out to sea have been carved into terraces of miniature suburban villas served by shopping centres with a multiplex cinema, a Spar supermarket, a Burger King and a bouncy castle for the kiddies. The newsagents are stacked with Suns and Daily Mails. The Travellers Rest and the Kings Arms await the homesick. You might be just about anywhere in Europe, with the minor difference that this is early February, the temperature is nudging 20 and there's not a cloud in the sky.

The other continent, the dark one with its freight of troubles, is barely 100 km away. If you were to set off from the coast of Western Sahara in a small boat and sail all night, in the morning you would see the lighthouse of Fuerteventura. It's an Atlantic passage, and the Atlantic is everywhere a serious ocean; those big breakers can pick up and flip over a skiff and smash its remnants and drown its passengers within minutes, leaving no evidence behind. But if their timing is lucky, and the gangster who takes their money slaps enough hot tar on the flimsy boxwood of the little craft that he and his underlings have banged furtively together, then their life savings will not have gone to waste. They will have achieved, despite everything the wealthy of this world have tried to throw at them, a toehold in a different life.

Mohamed is 18, he says, and wears a red sweat shirt given him by the Red Cross. He's a gangling black kid from Gambia, and for now he's alone in the world. You can see him on the benches by the fancy fountain outside the Red Cross offices at the top of Puerto del Rosario, Fuerteventura's biggest town, kicking his heels, waiting for something to happen. Last week he got out of the 40-day detention the Spanish government imposes, like a sort of quarantine, on the informal new black arrivals in the Canaries. After 40 days, if they can't deport you (because you haven't told them where you come from, or because Spain has no extradition arrangements with that country), they let you go. Sometimes they take you to Madrid or Valencia and let you go. It's hard to find clear rhyme or reason in what they do.

In Mohamed's case, they let him go here. The Red Cross put him up in one of the two houses they keep for the most vulnerable of the African arrivals. So he has a temporary roof. He's no longer in a sort of prison, he's in Europe. In Mohamed's case he also has parents and a brother who have already come this route and have fetched up in Barcelona. So he's in limbo, but he can see the possibility of the limbo coming to an end. He has no money and no documents and speaks not a word of Spanish. But his brother tells him he has a passport for him, and it will arrive by post. Then he's got to get himself to Barcelona. How is he going to do that, without two beans to rub together? A look of perfect blankness. But it will happen, somehow, sometime. He's got a direction in his life. He's going places.

Africans fleeing the desperation and poverty of their failed states have been washing up on Europe's coastline, or dying in the attempt, for 10 years now. Thousands have staggered ashore on Lampedusa, south of Sicily, in Gibraltar and Malaga, or they have scrambled over the triple fence of razor wire at Cuentes, a Spanish enclave on the northern coast of Morocco, and every time the European authorities plug one hole, the Africans find another. The Canaries are the destination of choice now, because the Mediterranean has got too tough, the Moroccans have been cracking down as well, while Western Sahara has more than 1,000 miles of sandy shore and Fuerteventura is only a day's sail away.

At Laayoune, the closest town to the coast, they have other problems than the migrants on their minds. Western Sahara was once a Spanish colony but its annexation by Morocco is disputed by the Polisario Front, an independence movement. Hundreds of UN peacekeepers monitor the ceasefire line that divides Greater Morocco from east to west like an enormous scar. The Sahrawis, the nomads native to the region who have fought for their own homeland, have seen their political aspirations frustrated for so long that they too dream of fleeing to the happy lands in the north. In fact the first to come to the Canaries, 10 years ago, were Sahrawis brought over by fishing boats. At first there were just a few every year. Then the authorities in the Canaries began arresting the fishermen and sentencing them to long jail terms and the original traffic died off.

It was quickly replaced by the more systematic and ruthless mafias that run the trade today. They have sent their clients off in boats that were bound to sink, helmed by immigrants who had been given the scantiest idea of what to do, packed to the gunwales, in filthy weather, with neither food nor drink nor clothes to keep out the cold. And the customers keep on coming. Nothing will put them off.

The desperation of the youngest, toughest, most ambitious Africans to flee the horror of their continent, no matter how desperate the passage, is the clearest possible index of the depth of trouble the continent is in. Stopping the trade in one place only forces it open in another. Neither granting amnesties nor refusing them makes an ounce of difference to people mired this deep in hopelessness.

Now the British Government and the Tory opposition are struggling to show which can be more aggressively chauvinist - more agreeable to the readers of the Daily Mail - in their defence of Fortress Britain.

But if either the Spanish or the British, or the Europeans at large, believe they can close down African immigration into Europe either by laws, by police action or by radars and laser, they are in dreamland.

Every boatload of misery that spills on to the Canaries' pristine beaches drives further home the fact that Africa's misery is Europe's responsibility. We created these nation states, we set them free, we corrupted them during the Cold War with billions in aid which went straight into the pockets of dictators. We cut them adrift when they no longer served any geopolitical purpose. We crucified them with World Bank and IMF solutions which had no bearing on countries where the state had ceased to be anything but a means for dictators and their relatives to grow obscenely rich.

Now, as an election looms, the Labour Party proposes to make it even harder for asylum seekers to enter the country. The problem of these people, they seem to say, could not be more remote from our concerns.

The arrival of these four frail boatloads of black people in the Canaries - and the thousands who will arrive in the coming months, regardless of who wins the British election, regardless of what laws or amnesties are in place - prove that the exact opposite is true.

Gordon Brown and other western leaders have understood that Africa cannot be allowed to fester indefinitely. Africa's problems are our problems. But the billions in aid Mr Brown wants to throw at them is good money after bad. Much has already drained down that plughole. A Marshall Plan for Africa cannot possibly work if the human and physical infrastructure of almost every country on the continent has wasted away.

Because Africa's deepest problems are Europe's dirty solutions. The billions spent protecting Europe's farmers, freeing them to dump their food in Africa, made it close to impossible for Africans to earn a living wage. Companies continue to exploit the continent's mineral wealth, giving next to nothing back. The City banks cheerfully laundered the billions plundered by the corrupt leaders on the continent, keeping the few rich villains in luxury and the rest in misery.

Every new boatload arriving tells us that Africa must not be fobbed off again. Africa is a problem that must be treated with full seriousness. For perhaps the first time ever.