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Paradise lost: The toll of illegal immigration in Spain

By Robert Duncan
web posted June 18, 2007

On the southernmost tip of Tarifa's Santo Cristo de las Animas Catholic cemetery, almost two dozen illegal Muslim immigrants have found their final resting place overlooking the sea with the African mountains forming a backdrop upon the horizon.

Nearby a marble plaque lies on the ground: "In memory of the immigrants who died in the waters of the Strait of Gibraltar." Throughout the cemetery are niches marked with the singular phrase "Moroccan Immigrant."

It is said that a local Catholic priest has in the past arranged for the immigrants to be buried according to Muslim customs.

For others, however, there will be no funeral.

Such as the 11 sub-Saharan immigrants that died from cold and dehydration in 2005 while trying to raft to Spain's Canary Islands. Their bodies were tossed into the water, according to the one woman and 12 men who survived them in rickety craft. Spanish authorities began searching for the raft after finding the bodies of a man and a six-month pregnant woman that had washed up on the Canary Island coasts.

But theirs, sadly, is also the story of many more.

Others try to make it into Spain's two enclaves that are in Africa, and surrounded by Morocco - Ceuta and Melilla - in hopes of making it to the Spanish mainland hiding in the undercarriage of large trucks. But even here the crossing is hazardous, as Spain has erected a series of razor-edged fences to prevent illegal border crossings.

As some have noted, the tide of immigrants from Morocco has actually stemmed in favor of other points of departure after that country rounded up hundreds of West Africans and then sent them into the Sahara desert without sufficient food or water.

Then there was the case in Tangiers, where six women and six children drowned after their raft constructed from inner-tubes lashed together broke apart. All the children were under three years old. Authorities said their raft was never really meant to be sea-worthy - but was instead designed to draw attention away from another craft loaded with illegal immigrants that was leaving later the same day. Another boat was so loaded down with people that it broke apart near the beach - a fact that probably saved the 91 people aboard. A large number of the people aboard were women, many of whom were pregnant, and young children. Spanish authorities repeatedly claim a large portion of the blame for these horrific events lies with the Moroccan government, which does not sufficiently control its own borders.

In 2004, 15,675 illegal immigrants aboard 740 boats were captured trying to make it to either the Canary Islands, or Andalusia, Spain's southern mainland province.

Since then the numbers have skyrocketed. In 2006 there were over 32,000 illegal immigrants making it to the Canary Islands.

Yet, despite the sharp increase in illegals, the government continues to fail in fully enforcing its borders.

Just last week, Gil Arias, the Deputy Director for Frontex - the organization responsible for patrolling off the Canary Islands - said his budget won't allow him to much longer maintain the patrols. According to Arias, the dual air and sea patrol costs 3,700 euros per hour.

A couple years ago, while writing a series on immigration for the Wall Street Journal, I visited the town of Tarifa, a Spanish fishing village on the southern edge of Europe. Given the town's proximity, it’s logical that the histories of Tarifa and Morocco are intertwined. After all, Morocco is just eight miles away and its mountains dominate the view south. Tarifa’s castle and street layout are a tribute to its Muslim ancestry, and its name is traced back to Tarik Ibn Malik, a Berber who founded the city in 710 AD, and which marked the invasion of the Muslim forces that would eventually conquer Visigoth Spain.

Tarifa is also one of the windsurfing capitals in the world. The constant wind not only helps bring in water-loving tourists, it also generates electricity on the nearby hills where windmills in Europe’s largest windpark emit purring whistles from their slicing propellers.

“Why do they (Africans) come here? Because they live in dictatorships, with low salaries, and they are attracted by the images that they see on the television,” said Paula Moreno, an immigration official for the Socialist party in Tarifa told me. According to Moreno, the crossing really began in 1989, but exploded in 1991 when the Spanish economy rocked on the build up to the 1992 World Expo in Seville and the Olympics in Barcelona.

"They (immigrants) think this is paradise," Bartolome Iglesias Qunitero, a local Socialist party member in Tarifa told me. "But the Straits aren't paradise. Here you see it almost any day, it's nothing like what you see on the television, or in the press. There is nothing like seeing, in person, the bodies (of drowned immigrants) on the beach."

People Smuggling Is Big Business

Moroccans could enter Spain freely until 1991, that's the year a visa requirement was introduced as part of the country joining Europe’s Schengen area, and which regulates entry of non-European Union citizens. But now, with the southern border closed, thousands of African immigrants attempt to cross the Strait each year stowed under trucks or in boats. Those that cross by water in rubber rafts equipped with low-horsepower motors are usually shepherded by smugglers on moonless nights with connections on both sides of the Straits.

But it's not cheap to try the waters the illegal way. The 35-minute ferry ride from Tangier, Morocco only costs around 25 euros. But with the borders closed to most Africans, human traffickers can charge over 2,000 euros, a price that covers three attempts at getting into Spain, immigration officials in Tarifa said. A flimsy raft loaded with 50 immigrants can make traffickers as much as 100,000 euros in one night.

As noted above, many of them don’t make it alive. According to ATIME, the Association of Immigrant Moroccan Workers in Spain, more than 4,000 people drowned in the five year period of 2000 - 2005 while trying to cross illegally into Spain. Ironically the very wind, which on one side of the Straits is a cash generator, on the other is often a harbinger of death - whipping and capsizing unseaworthy vessels, tossing men, women - and children - into the frigid currents waters that join the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean.

When I was in Tarifa I stopped by the Red Cross offices, where officials told me they treated over 4,000 illegals in one year. Many of the survivors need treatment for burns caused by the mixture of Moroccan gasoline and saltwater, I was told by the then Red Cross coordinator Juan Antonio Fernandez.

The same people claim that for every person caught, there are another 4 that are sure to have got away. Red Cross officials claimed that half of the illegals were sub-Saharans, with quite a few of the women being pregnant. Some of the women though if they were pregnant it might be easier to get residency papers. Others claimed to have been raped by smugglers, according to people at the Red Cross.

Not surprisingly, in the region there are halfway houses - some of which are run by the Catholic Church. People in town tell of finding pregnant illegal immigrants walking on the sideroads and rushing them off to safe houses.

"There have been times when I've been driving that I've picked up a migrant and take them to a safe house," says a city official who asked to be not named. "This is a small town and everybody knows who is helping the immigrants. Even the policemen know."

Those comments were echoed elsewhere - including inside a Catholic Church. While visiting one church, some young men approached me and identified themselves as locals and shared similar stories.

Obviously Tarifa isn't such a big town that a nosey stranger can go unnoticed.

Immigrant Population Now Tops 4.5 Million Versus 500,000 in 1996

To understand the radical shift in the public face of Spanish society one only needs to compare that 4.5 million immigrant population to 1996 when there were only around 500,000 immigrants in all of Spain.

Caving in to public pressure, the Spanish government this past year has been tougher on immigration - despite the fact that to maintain pensions immigrants must make up 20 percent of Spain's population by 2030 to 2050, according to several reports.

The trend is not in Spain alone.

According to a recent European Union commission, by 2050 there will be 48 million fewer eligible workers in Europe, with 60 million people being over the retirement age of 65. In other words, in 2050 there will be two workers for every retired person, compared to the current four-to-one ratio.

Simple math would suggest that to ensure the pension systems that four-to-one ratio needs to be maintained - meaning either Europe needs 48 million immigrants by 2050, or Europeans better start making a lot more babies.

In Spain in past years there had been a much larger influx of immigrants - often via amnesty deals - last year the country's population only rose by 400,000 to 45.1 million. Interestingly, the immigrant population increased by the same number to 4.5 million from 4.1 million. This was the smallest increase in the past seven years.

Rounding Up The Ones That Got Away

The duty of patrolling Spain's borders falls to the nation's Civil Guard, a paramilitary police outfit that zealously watch the coastal province, with their 4x4s criss-crossing the rugged terrain at night, while helicopters fly overhead and boats patrol sea.

On one such patrol, I witnessed the Civil Guard speed their jeep into a curve on a dark midnight-lit road where they had seen a dark-featured man walking. One of the Civil Guard's slammed open the vehicle's door to pin the man against the guardrail, and with a burly arm grabbed the man, who began to shout: "I'm Spanish! I am a Spaniard!"

The Civil Guard let the man - who it appeared had been out on the town - continue walking toward home.

However, that wasn't the case for a couple of other people. Around 3 a.m. that same night the Civil Guard pulled over a Citroen with Moroccan license plates. Both driver and passenger produced the proper papers, but they couldn't prove they had paid the import tax on the car.

The Citroen was impounded.

The Civil Guard said the Moroccans were probably going to meet smugglers or to pick up illegal immigrants.

The same Civil Guard added: “Moroccans are dangerous. They run and put up a fight. There’s no other immigrant as dangerous.”

Others told me that while the Moroccan immigrants know they will be deported, the sub-Saharans knew that eventually they would be taken to nearby Algeciras - and set free after being told "they had 20 days to leave the country." Something they obviously ignored.

Fernandez laughed in response to the accusation that Moroccan immigrants are more dangerous than others. "When the law treats all immigrants the same, then we'll see if one group is more violent than the other." Fernandez told me that often the sub-Saharans often want to be caught since they need clothing and first aid.

If caught, would-be immigrants are detained on Tarifa's Isla de Palomas, or Pigeon Island, at the end of a 300-yard causeway that links back to the town. The island is littered with bunkers and defensive structures testifying to its military past. Access is strictly limited and accusations periodically have been made of overcrowding and poor conditions. The Civil Guard says the installations are periodically remodelled.

According to Fernandez, some of the Moroccan immigrants are repeat offenders. "We've seen some (Moroccans) pass through here several times. There was one fellow we saw come through on six separate occasions. He was able to even identify us by our names and titles."

But where some see border controls, others see discrimination.

Manolo Abella, chief of international migrant programs for the International Labor Organization in Geneva, told me that Spain seems to turn a blind eye to Latin American immigration. "The policy is never stated, but it can be interpreted that it's easier to integrate people with the same culture and religion," he said.

"The government is clearly favoring Latin Americans," says Mohamed Ben Abdul Kader, a Mauritanian who arrived in 1982. "If we go to rent an apartment, and a Latin American comes . . . the Latin American gets the apartment. If we go to a job interview, the same thing."

Looking Closer At The Numbers: Where Is The Real "Threat"?

It's not surprising that attention has been drawn to the larger boats that are bringing illegal immigrants to the Canary Islands - many of them having started their journey in remote countries such as Pakistan to be trucked across the African continent by people smugglers and mafia.

In recent years Moroccan and other African immigrants are finding it ever tougher to reach Spain. As economic problems in Eastern Europe and South America drive hundreds of thousands to Spain, Africans have found themselves competing for the jobs the Spanish don't want. And in many cases, they are finding that other immigrant groups take relatively more desirable cleaning and restaurant jobs. That has meant that in many cases, Africans are left to jobs on farms, in construction and heavy industry. Africans have the highest unemployment rate of all immigrant groups. They blame that gap on prejudice.

"The government, and the press, are selling an image that the major immigration threat is coming from the south," Abderrahman Benyahya, secretary general for the Muslim Association in Melilla told me. "In reality, the number of immigrants coming from the south is very small in comparison to those that come from Europe and Latin America through Barajas [Madrid airport]."

And Benyahya has a point.

In 2004 the legal populations of Bolivians and Ecuadorians both were around 4,000. Jump forward now to 2007, and while the Moroccan population remains the largest single immigrant group at around 575,000, sources at the embassies of Ecuador and Bolivia have told me that they each have well over 500,000 citizens of their countries living in Spain. In fact, one official suggested to me that there could be over 750,000 Ecuadorians living in Spain - well over the official 420,000 legal residents from his country that are registered. By comparison, there are said to be roughly 200,000 legal Bolivians. Legal Colombians are another 250,000.

In fact, Latin American immigrants as a whole are the largest immigrants group in Spain.

And to further feed fodder for the conspirationalists that Spain prefers non-Muslims, Rumania is now the country with the second-most legal immigrants, at around 525,000.

As an aside, there are also 314,000 U.K. citizens in Spain - the vast majority of them on the coast.

Changing Trends In Labor

For its part, the Spanish Foreign Affairs Ministry has said Africans rarely meet the financial requirements for tourist visas. However, a survey a couple of years ago by temporary-staffing agency Manpower Inc. noted that that while most African immigrants have less education on average than Spaniards -- immigrants as a whole are more educated than the Spanish -- few immigrants are employed in jobs that require much education.

Of the 687,500 new jobs that were created in 2006, a full two-thirds of all those positions were filled by immigrants. That said, as the construction boom ends in Spain there are signs that unemployment among immigrants is beginning to rise.

According to a recent study by IESE Business School and Adecco, the unemployment rate among immigrants is four points higher than that four Spaniards. At the beginning of 2007 there were 372,000 unemployed immigrants, representing 20.5% of the total unemployed compared to around 14% in 2006.

The IESE and Adecco report suggests that these numbers indicate that the policy of the government should be not stopping immigration, but focussing on attracting those immigrants who have the best skills.

Another question, however, is how long immigrants remain on unemployment. Most labor experts see the immigrant labor population as being more flexible with respect to filling jobs than when compared to the native Spanish population. In particular, I know of several Latin Americans who are already preparing for a downturn in construction work and who are taking courses to become electricians or heating and cooling experts.

There are reports that there remain one million illegal immigrants in Spain, the government insists there are no plans for another amnesty - such as the last one held in 2005. Under that deal, if an illegal could prove that they had been working and in the country prior to a certain date, then they had a pretty good chance of getting work and residence papers.

Despite the government's assurances, I know of several cases where illegal immigrants are hoping to make it three years working in Spain, to later be able to present a contract in an attempt to legalize their situation.

The Socialist government says that around 700,000 people benefited from the last three-month amnesty, which the government claims could represent an increase of around 1.5 billion euros for the state's social security coffers. In a 2000 amnesty Spain approved only about half of Moroccans' requests for work permits - far fewer than the number approved for South Americans and Eastern Europeans. Proof, say critics, that the government has a policy to stem the tide of those immigrants who are Muslim.

Spanish Government Turning Blind Eye To Human Rights?

And despite this happening for years - or perhaps because of it - Amnesty International has claimed that both Spanish authorities and the media are turning a blind eye to the human rights concerns of refugees, rendering them invisible. Amnesty International claims part of the problem is in treating all immigrants as if they were merely illegal, and which conceals the reality that many are fleeing persecution and grave abuses in their country of origin.

"Amnesty International recognises the right of the Spanish government to control immigration and to regulate the entry of foreign nationals onto its soil, but stresses that this right must not be at the expense of the rights of all persons to enjoy their fundamental human rights," the international agency said.

"Spain has adopted migration policies and practices that are preventing persons fleeing grave human rights violations reaching Spain, seeking asylum and obtaining protection. Spain’s expulsion processes – which have included unlawful expulsions via the border with Morocco – do not guarantee that people will not be returned to countries where their human rights would risk being violated (a principle referred to as non-refoulement)," according to the organization.

And in the meantime, a human tide laps on Spain's southern borders. ESR

Some of the material in this article is drawn upon a 2003 WSJ series.

Robert Duncan is a journalist and ombudsman for foreign press in Spain. He is an Executive Board Member and Vice-President for the Organización de Periodismo y Comunicación Ibero-Americana, and Vice-President of the energy and telecommunications association, APSCE. He is News Editor for Spero News, and Editor-In-Chief of EnerPub and Santificarnos.He has also been published in World Catholic News, National Catholic Register, Renew America, Lifesite.net, as well as Capital Hill Coffee House, Common Conservative, The Conservative Voice, Enter Stage Right, News By Us, Conservative Crusader, World Net Daily, Mens News Daily and others. Robert was the bureau chief for an international news agency in Madrid for many years, and was published regularly in Dow Jones Newswires, with articles appearing in The Wall Street Journal.


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