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)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Extras
indybest
Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Facilities Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Facilities Manager is required to join the m...

Recruitment Genius: New Business Sales Consultant - Mobile - OTE £35,000

£14000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This independent telecoms compa...

Recruitment Genius: New Business Sales Consultant - Unified - OTE £35,000

£14000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This independent telecoms compa...

Recruitment Genius: Trade Sales Consultant - Furniture

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a besp...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum