Desperate migrants take risky voyage to holiday isle

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The Independent Online

The seven bewildered Senegalese lined up on the barrack square of the Moroccan gendarmerie post had paid £50 each to a guide to hide them in the desert. Where were they heading? "To Europe," they said.

The seven bewildered Senegalese lined up on the barrack square of the Moroccan gendarmerie post had paid £50 each to a guide to hide them in the desert. Where were they heading? "To Europe," they said.

In their late teens and early twenties, they were easy prey to the migrant smuggling networks in Laayoune, the regional capital of the Western Sahara. After three days waiting in the desert their food was finished and they realised the trafficker had duped them. They trekked for five days to reach a town where, exhausted and frightened, they were picked up by police.

Moroccan authorities paraded the Senegalese as the latest group to be caught in a massive wave of arrests this month. But they warned European leaders meeting this week in Seville that getting tough with third countries over immigration would only aggravate the problem.

"Europe must understand that the long-term solution is to help Africa develop," Abdel-Latif Guerraoui, regional governor of Western Sahara, said. "Our frontiers are very long. They are not the same as those of European countries. It is inhuman and unjust to make such demands."

With hundreds of miles of coast to police, and regional poverty the top priority, Morocco says it does not have the resources to stop desperate and determined migrants who travel for thousands of miles for the chance, however small, of entering Europe.

The migrant route now overtaking the crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar as the favoured way of reaching Europe for sub-Saharan Africans leads to the rocky and volcanic holiday island of Fuerteventura, 60 miles from the African coast and the most accessible of the Canaries. But the crossing, at night in small wooden boats, is much more dangerous than the Strait of Gibraltar. No one knows how many have been lost at sea or in the desert. So far this year 2,300 Africans have survived the crossing. This is roughly double the rate at which they were arriving in Fuerteventura last year.

The Civil Guard catches nearly all the migrants who make it to the island, but most cannot be deported because Spain has bilateral agreements with only a few African countries, such as Nigeria and Morocco, for the repatriation of their own nationals.

Lieutenant Francisco Alba said: "I have seen whole families on the boats, and pregnant women. On four occasions we have had dead people washed up on the beaches, in one case nine, another 15, another seven or two. That's the highest price they pay for trying to improve their lot."

Spain, with Britain and Italy, is leading the proposal to toughen the EU policy towards countries that allow migrants to leave their borders for Europe, by threatening to cancel aid and trade agreements. Marcial Morales, minister of social affairs in the Canary Islands' regional government, said: "I have said, officially, and even in the presence of dead bodies, that Morocco is, at the very least, not doing all it should to prevent this trade in death."

Some 300 sub-Saharan Africans are being held in the Canaries, in conditions that Human Rights Watch has called appalling, at a disused airport terminal on Fuerteventura, only yards away from where thousands of British and German tourists arrive for package holidays.

Gerardo Mesa, head of the Red Cross in Fuerteventura, said: "One feels sick from the smell and to see all the men looking at the floor not knowing what to do, thinking they have come to heaven when they are really worse off than in jail."

The Red Cross is the only organisation allowed to see the migrants in the terminal. No journalists are given access.

Justin Webster's Channel 4 report on African immigration will be shown tonight at 7pm