Doormen of Europeflounder in the face of human tide

Perilous seas and unscrupulous traffickers fail to deter thousands landing in Spain and Italy in search of 'a new El Dorado'
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The Independent Online

From Tarifa, Spain's southernmost tip, you can see the rocky coastline of Africa just nine miles away across the Strait of Gibraltar. The crossing is perilous, ripped by currents and crosswinds, but it is the main gateway to Europe for unprecedented numbers of illegal African immigrants.

From Tarifa, Spain's southernmost tip, you can see the rocky coastline of Africa just nine miles away across the Strait of Gibraltar. The crossing is perilous, ripped by currents and crosswinds, but it is the main gateway to Europe for unprecedented numbers of illegal African immigrants.

Juan Trivino, director of the Red Cross in Tarifa, nodded across this windsurfers' paradise. "Practically all those entering Spain illegally come ashore here. They come at night without lights, guided by the lighthouse and the petrol station. It's terribly dangerous. A wave can tip their little boats over and that's it," he said.

Each morning this week, when light winds prevailed in this usually gusty spot, Tarifa's Civil Guard and Red Cross patrols hauled ashore boatloads of immigrants making trips that for many end in deportation or drowning. Increasing numbers of women, often pregnant or clutching babies, stumble on to the sand.

Brother Isidoro, a Franciscan whose community took in four African women with their babies this week, said: "Mostly they have money, or some way of getting it. They are educated, with contacts in Europe, some even have an onward ticket. They're fleeing danger, not poverty." Our conversation was punctuated by phone calls. He added: "Families from all over Andalucia are offering to take in these young mothers. People are generous." He showed me shoes donated by a factory in Valencia.

Tarifa health centre and the Algeciras hospital and police station have been brought to the point of collapse by the influx, which has prompted renewed national debate on the need for a Europe-wide solution. Mr Trivino said: "We just don't have the space or facilities to treat these people with the dignity they deserve. They don't stay here. They head for Germany, France and England. We're just the doormen of Europe."

Andalucian authorities have detained 7,000 immigrants this year, against 5,500 for the whole of 1999. More than 600 have landed in the past 10 days, an influx so big that officials speculate that a ship laden with immigrants may have towed out several boats and then cast them off on the calm sea.

About half the immigrants are Moroccans, who come without papers and are put on a ferry home. But increasingly those heading north are Nigerians and Sierra Leoneans fleeing persecution and war. They arrive not in the traditional open wooden pateras but in powered inflatable boats known as Zodiacs.

Jose Luis Villahoz, of the Welcome to Algeciras welfare organisation, said: "They come because they see images of Europe on satellite television and think it's El Dorado. And mafias falsely promise they can become legal if they get here before the end of July." Spain is legalising the situation of many immigrants who can show they have been resident for two years.

Mr Villahoz said: "But new arrivals think they can buy a certificate proving they've been here all that time."

The mafias charge up to 300,000 pesetas (£1,200) for the trip, although no recent arrival admits paying anything to anyone. Until last year would-be immigrants slipped into Spain's Moroccan enclaves of Ceuta or Melilla but those are nowprotected by Civil Guards and barriers of razor wire.

Near Algeciras station a young woman leant into my taxi. She said in English: "I very hungry; I need money to eat." She was Nigerian and had arrived on a Zodiac the day before. The police served her and her compatriots with an expulsion order - notice to leave Spain in 15 days - and let her go. She was sleeping in the street, she said, gesturing vaguely, clearly vulnerable to the prostitution rings eager to recruit women without papers.

Locals are mostly hospitable to incomers, perhaps because Algeciras is a transit point, not a destination. Rosario Jimenez, who runs a campsite in Tarifa, found herself sharing a maternity ward with Silvia, recently arrived from Sierra Leone. When their babies were born, Rosario invited Silvia to move in with her family. Rosario said: "What else would I do? Leave her on the street? My action helps her but does not solve the problem. I don't know what the solution is."

Mr Villahoz said granting more short-term visas might help. "Then people could come openly and not risk their lives on expensive illegal trips.

"Governments must recognise that immigration is a social fact, not a crime. And the push is unstoppable. You can't stop them coming, even if you line up Civil Guards along the coast, all pointing their riflesat the strait."

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