Wave of illegals makes for Spain: Phil Davison on the African boat people fleeing to Europe

'THEY WERE packed like pencils in a box, 200 jammed together, standing up. You could hardly see the boat. It was full of water, up to their knees. The only possible reason they didn't all go to the bottom of the sea was that God didn't want it to happen.'

A Spanish customs patrol captain was describing a boatload of African would-be immigrants intercepted last week off Spain's south-eastern coast. The Africans, including two women, had made a rough, painfully slow three-day crossing from Nador on the Moroccan coast in a rickety, 50ft open motor launch, fleeing poverty and unemployment. They were seeking work in Spain, France or other EC countries in a desperate attempt to sustain hungry families at home. Packed tight, they could not move and were suffering from cramp and dehydration.

The world's latest boat people come mostly from North Africa but also from south of the Sahara, from Ethiopia, Somalia, Ghana, Nigeria, and sometimes as far as South Africa. Some come from even farther afield. Last Friday, 20 Filipinos, including four women, were picked up after landing in an open boat at Tarifa, Spain's southernmost tip, only nine miles from Africa. Hoping to find work in Europe, they had opted for the Straits of Gibraltar route to avoid tough immigration restrictions at European airports and road borders. The going rate for the short but rough Straits crossing, or the longer voyage further east between Morocco and the Almeria area, is anything from pounds 100 to pounds 500 a head. It's a fortune for most who make the trip, but seen as an investment towards the returns of a lucrative job.

The recent boatload of 200 was close to shore when caught. A Spanish fishing boat spotted it off Almeria, about 100 miles north of Morocco, and tipped off a customs patrol launch. After rest and medical care, the refugees, mostly Moroccans but including some from as far away as Somalia, were ferried back to Melilla, Spain's tiny enclave on the North African coast, then sent across the border into Morocco.

In a sense they were the lucky ones. Customs officials along Spain's sun-drenched south-eastern coast estimate that around 50 would-be illegal immigrants have drowned this year. They were part of a wave of crossings that began in May 1991, when Spain, falling into line with EC regulations, slapped visa requirements on North Africans. Previously, they had poured in as 'tourists', found work and stayed on illegally.

Now, the wave has become an unprecedented surge as unemployment, poverty and famine take their toll throughout the continent.

Spain already has 250,000 legal and an estimated 300,000 illegal African immigrants - half of them are Moroccans - some living in shanty towns and usually employed as casual labourers. But while the total detained in 1991 was 4,000, that figure has been reached in the past few weeks alone. And for every one picked up, another is thought to make it through the net, on to Granada, or perhaps Madrid, and often making it to France or Belgium.

The boat owners, Spanish and Moroccan, have contacts on the Spanish coast who help the illegals disappear inland. Spanish newspapers implied corrupt officials could be involved, turning a blind eye in return for kickbacks. Customs patrols, with fast launches, have shown inexplicable reluctance to chase vessels that have dropped off passengers.

But most of the boatmen refuse to come ashore for fear of detention. Their passengers, allowed to carry only a single plastic bag, are forced to jump overboard in deep water and strong currents to swim ashore.

Which is why they have become known in Spain as espaldas mojadas (wetbacks), a term long used to describe Mexican illegals who swim the Rio Grande seeking a more affluent life in the United States.

On 23 August, 57 Africans tried to swim ashore near Algeciras. Three never made it but the rest, clutching black rubbish bags containing their worldly goods, were picked up by a customs shore patrol. Another would-be immigrant was found dead last week, crushed by a bus as he stowed away on a car ferry.

Most of the 57 who tried to get ashore at Algeciras were Ethiopians, a reminder that the would-be immigrants are not all North Africans but include desperate natives of sub-Saharan countries who work their way north overland to seek a better life.

Despite the deportations, most would-be immigrants say they will try again. 'The waves were huge. Everyone was seasick and vomiting,' said Hasam Kaoshi, a Moroccan deported last week. 'The waves poured in on top of us and we had to bail it out with bottles. But I'll try again as soon as I can. Death is better than misery.'

(Photograph omitted)

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