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Spain urges Brussels to help with influx of migrants from Africa

Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, Spain's Deputy Prime Minister, went to Brussels seeking an aid package and practical help, including the deployment of migration experts to advise its border guards on how to deal with the migrants arriving in the Canary Islands.

Some 7,400 illegal migrants, mainly from central and sub-Saharan Africa, have arrived in the Canaries this year, prompting regional MPs to ask Madrid to take action to stem the "immigration avalanche" by sending the migrants home. A record 647 migrants landed last Thursday, overwhelming local services.

But although the Canary Islands are recording the highest number of illegal migrants reaching Europe in recent months, boatloads are also still heading for Europe's Mediterranean islands. A total of 850 people have washed up on the Italian island of Lampedusa since the weekend, including migrants from Lebanon and Iraq. Malta, Cyprus and Greece are also struggling to cope with the influx which shows no signs of abating despite measures agreed with such countries as Libya and Morocco. The EU has already stepped up co-operation and co-ordination to include resources such as planes, boats and reception centres for migrants.

Many migrants do not survive the long and perilous journeys. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) yesterday opened a two-day "rescue at sea" conference with the International Maritime Organisation in Madrid to consider co-operation between Mediterranean states.

Most of the people who risk their lives by taking to the sea are economic migrants, but the UN fears that genuine refugees could be forcibly expelled by governments in mass deportations. William Spindler, a UNHCR spokesman, said that although the number of refugees was not known, "refugees are being turned back. There are fears that Europe is failing in its international obligations."

"As the European governments concentrate their efforts on keeping people out - we say, 'be careful'," said Mr Spindler. Amnesty International voiced similar concerns. "You can't confuse not having documents with not having human rights," Amnesty's Esteban Beltran said in Madrid.

A spokesman for Franco Frattini, the EU commissioner for justice and interior affairs, said the EU would look into providing financial help and experts, but stressed Spain was not alone in dealing with migration influxes.

"We need to address the root causes of forced migration, which will not happen overnight," he said.

EU countries say the root cause of poverty is the main reason why so many from the poorest countries of Africa try to flee to Europe, and have agreed to boost aid to the continent.

Mr Frattini has called for EU governments to back plans for an emergency EU fund for quick responses to the mass flows of migrants, as well as setting up a permanent plan for European patrols in the Mediterranean to intercept illegal migrants.

Spain hopes that new embassies in Mali, Sudan and the Cape Verde Islands could channel aid and encourage migrants to stay at home.

The UN Assistant High Commissioner for Refugee Protection, Erika Feller, is to fly to the Canary Islands tomorrow. She discussed the scale of the problem with authorities last week in Mauritania, from where many of the African migrants set sail.