Seeking refuge with the tourists

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The 14 Nigerians - six women and eight men - were tossed about in heavy seas for 20 hours before Fuerteventura's coastal patrol plucked them from their little wooden boat on Thursday night. Small wonder, as they clambered shivering on to Spanish soil, clutching plastic bags and blinking in the glare of the Civil Guard flashlights, that relief, as well as shock, was etched upon their faces.

The 14 Nigerians - six women and eight men - were tossed about in heavy seas for 20 hours before Fuerteventura's coastal patrol plucked them from their little wooden boat on Thursday night. Small wonder, as they clambered shivering on to Spanish soil, clutching plastic bags and blinking in the glare of the Civil Guard flashlights, that relief, as well as shock, was etched upon their faces.

Faith, 25, seven months pregnant, told me next morning she'd been scared to death and hadn't stopped vomiting. "The sea was high. The boat was jumping up and down. I thought we were finished." But like her shipmates huddled in that rickety craft, she overcame her fear because of the greater terror of what she had left behind in Nigeria. "There is a war there, a big problem. Going back would be the end of my life."

Just 90km separates the African coast near El Aioun in Western Sahara from Gran Tarajal in Fuerteventura, the nearest of Spain's Canary Islands to Africa. Within an hour of putting to sea, the two Moroccan pilots of the patera would have glimpsed the island's Entallada lighthouse and used it to guide them.

The two pilots were arrested and their powerful outboard motor confiscated. Moored on Gran Tarajal harbourside is a sad flotilla of pateras, containing the hastily abandoned debris of similar clandestine voyages: a plastic flip-flop, an empty milk carton, an orange, a sodden T-shirt. Sometimes the passengers fail to make it and the boats arrive empty.

Easygoing Fuerteventura, the least commercialised of Spain's tourist-loving Canaries, is the new southern frontier of Europe. Few of the millions of English and German holidaymakers drawn to the island's silver beaches and gentle pace can be aware of the mounting traffic of those fleeing horror in sub-Saharan Africa.

Solomon, 30, arrived in January from Sierra Leone after rebels seized his family's land and threatened to cut off his hands if he did not join them. "They burned my sister to death in her home. They killed my parents on the road as they were trying to escape to Liberia, and threw them in a mass grave. They beat me on the head." Solomon removes his baseball cap to show a deep scar. "I walked for three nights to the town of Bo. I hid in the bush during the day. Then I got a lift to Freetown."

Solomon befriended some Americans on a ship, running errands for them, buying cigarettes. They took him on board and three weeks later put him off at Puerto de Rosario in Fuerteventura. He went to the Red Cross, near the bus station, where they helped him request asylum. "At least I feel safe here. If I go back it's going back to death. If they're kidnapping UN peacekeepers, what chance do I have? If Spain sends me back it means they want me to die."

Spain will not send Solomon or Faith back, nor any of the hundreds who have arrived in Fuerteventura in recent months from Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Spain has no repatriation treaty with these countries. Moroccans, by contrast, are flown to Spain's Moroccan enclave of Melilla and plonked across the frontier within 72 hours.

These new African arrivals are young, healthy, educated and, increasingly, female. They are fleeing war, not poverty or famine. "Only the fit survive the terrible journey," says Gerardo Mesa, head of the Red Cross in Fuerteventura. "We warned the government last year that numbers of refugees were building up in El Aioun. We were overwhelmed by the influx, and scrambled to find beds, food and medical care. We can't send them back. But we mustn't improvise. This is a European problem and Europe must find a solution now."

Powerful mafias are behind the human traffic. "This isn't just a group of friends," says the Civil Guard's Lt Francisco Alba. "Organised groups in El Aioun have several boats and set out when they've assembled about 15 passengers. They charge around 80,000 pesetas (£320) each for the trip."

The sticky haze that slightly clouds the sun here is not mist but calima - dust from the Sahara blown by the seroco wind. As I drive north to the pretty harbour town of Correlejo, sand hisses against the windscreen, billows across the shifting dunes.

Correlejo is the kind of resort where northern Europeans can re-create for their children the bucket-and-spade idyll of their own childhood holidays, but with tropical sun and decent food. The town retains a gentle innocence long eliminated from brasher spots elsewhere in the Canaries.

But in Correlejo, and throughout Fuerteventura, construction of hotels and restaurants is in full swing. Here the paths of the island's two classes of visitors intersect. Immigrants without papers often find illegal employment in construction, domestic service, night-work in bakeries for hotels tailor-made for German and British tastes.

Gerardo Mesa at the Red Cross takes a pragmatic view of this grey economy. "We always take the side of the needy. But we talk to the companies and recommend good, reliable workers and try to make sure those without papers are not exploited."

None of the 16 Africans living in the Red Cross house in Puerto de Rosario has permission to work. Many of them, including Solomon, seek asylum. Faith, because of her pregnancy, moved into the house on Friday morning. Her shipmates will have been taken to a detention centre in what passes for the island's frontier zone: the old airport. The abandoned terminal sits in the shadow of the spanking new airport through which millions of holidaymakers will throng in the coming months.

Earlier this year 300 were held, until many were flown to a converted warehouse in Gran Canaria to make way for new arrivals. After 40 days, those who cannot be deported must be freed. "We want them to be well looked after, with dignity" says Antonio Pena Rodriguez, Spain's government representative in Fuerteventura. "They don't want to stay here. This is a trampoline for them, a jumping off point to Spain or England. Our economy is fine and they cause no trouble, but with up to 4,000 expected this year we could have problems if the economy slows down."

I join Civil Guards Alfonso and Emilio on night patrol of the coast. We drive up a dirt track to the headland next to Entallada lighthouse. The beam flashes across the open sea, but seems a pale competitor to the dazzling stars. Every five minutes Alfonso or Emilio scrutinises the horizon with a heat-seeking camera.

The camera can spot a boatload of refugees or an outboard motor up to 3km away in pitch dark, and in two months has detected 20 pateras. Alfonso helps me focus. "Start with the coastline, it shows up because it's warm, then move on to the sea." Through the lens, the night is transformed into a luminous monochrome movie. "You see those little white dots?" he asks.

"Yes, yes," I reply excitedly, hoping for a sighting.

"They're goats," he says.

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