Thousands perish each year on the perilous routes to Fortress Europe

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The Independent Online

For many of the migrants seeking safety or prosperity in Western Europe, the ride in a sweaty truck is often the best part of the journey. The soft gateways to Fortress Europe are reached from the seas. Uncounted thousands perish along the way.

For many of the migrants seeking safety or prosperity in Western Europe, the ride in a sweaty truck is often the best part of the journey. The soft gateways to Fortress Europe are reached from the seas. Uncounted thousands perish along the way.

Route One into the land promised by the smuggling gangs begins in Turkey. It leads across Greece into Albania, and to one of those rickety boats. Italy is less than a day away, but many do not make it.

The ones that manage to wash ashore alive and undetected are taken north to Milan, where they are crammed into lorries or freight trains. Wedged into the small space between the ceiling and the roof, they make their way to their destinations in Schengen Europe.

Route Two, used mainly by African, begins at the Moroccan coast. The journey across the Straits of Gibraltar to Spain is over in an hour, but the vessels the smugglers use are small, and the waters treacherous. An estimated 3,000 people have drowned here in five years.

Less hazardous, but bureaucratically more daunting, is Route Three, the variant involving the fortified Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Those that get past the hi-tech fence and razor wire have some hope of being shifted to camps in Spain in the distant future. From there they will have to make their escape.

Route Four - the easiest on paper and for years the most popular - is gradually being turned into a cul-de-sac by the efforts of the German police. It involves a short and hazard-free journey across the river Oder separating Germany and Poland. This used to be the most convenient for people from the former Soviet Union, but it is well guarded these days and the smugglers and their quarry have nowhere to hide.

According to John Morrison, the British author of a soon to be published report about migration for the UNHCR, about 200,000 people try to enter Fortress Europe from the outside every year. "I would say the majority of them are being trafficked now," he says. "Because how else could you get in?" Due to a series of restrictions imposed by European governments in recent years, the traditional methods of clandestine and semi-clandestine entry, such as forged visas, are inadequate. Since 1987, for instance, "carrier liability sanctions" imposed on ships and aircraft have ensured thatasylum-seekers and other migrants never get on board.

Successive clampdowns on asylum-seekers have thus driven them into the embrace of the smuggling gangs. "European policy has been blind if not perfectly expedient, and has made this situation much worse," Mr Morrison says.

According to the Italian Ministry of the Interior, more than 180 clandestini, or illegal immigrants, lost their lives trying to enter Italy in 1999, but police admit that statistic is only a fraction of the reality.

Most of those deaths occurred at sea. The gangs of Albanians and Slavs who run the lucrative traffic across the Strait of Otranto frequently tip their human cargo overboard several hundred metres off shore to make a quick getaway. Many of them, exhausted after the long voyage, drown.

Some, especially Kurds from mountainous areas, don't even know how to swim. Many of the victims are discovered by coastguards, they are without documents and are often never identified.

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