A Boat Ride to Trouble

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Apr 05, 2007 12:01 AM
A Boat Ride to Trouble

MASPALOMAS, Gran Canaria -- Prosperous tourists are drawn to the Canary Islands from France, Spain, Portugal, Germany and even the United States, all seeking surf and sand on these seven Spanish islands 60 miles off the coast of West Africa. There's good mountain climbing, deep-sea fishing, camel riding and scuba diving, and the more adventurous parachute to beaches of soft white sand imported from the Sahara.

Thousands of Asian and African tourists are drawn here each year, too, but they don't stay long, because they're not drawn to fun and games on the beach. They're trying to trade a life of grinding poverty for a new life in Europe. The Canaries are a way station. Some petition for asylum from countries at war, and many become illegal immigrants. Spanish authorities estimate that over 31,000 illegals moved through the Canaries last year. They were the lucky ones.

Fragile makeshift boats often don't make it through the rough winds and angry waves of the Atlantic. Corpses often wash up on the beaches, grim testimony to the turbulent appetite of the sea. By some estimates, more than 6,000 illegals died last year trying to make it to the Canaries en route to the EU. Dirty drinking water, fever and spells cast by evil demons with "flashing eyes," impersonating human passengers, take a deadly toll. Mothers in coastal villages in West Africa lift their eyes to the horizon daily for a sign that their sons are safe and will soon send home money and goods from Europe. The EU patrols, constantly on the prowl to intercept them and send them home, show no more mercy than the sea.

The Moroccan ports were once favorite embarkation points for the voyage, but, pressured by the government in Madrid, the Moroccan police cracked down and immigrants now go through ports farther south in the Western Sahara, Mauritania and Senegal. This adds hundreds of miles to the journey.

The European Union border agency, called Frontex, has strengthened surveillance patrol of the routes, but the immigrants keep coming, often exploited by the seaborne "coyotes" eager to extract millions of euros from those willing to risk their lives in pursuit of a better life, and almost any life is better than the one the illegals leave behind.

Spain, with liberal immigration laws, is a particularly attractive destination. Asylum seekers get 40 days to prove they would be in danger back home. When they can't, they must leave, but many of them, aided by friends and relatives already in Europe, are quickly absorbed into the European population, much like Hispanic illegals are absorbed in the United States. An expanding number of illegals trying to get into Britain now come through the Canaries from English-speaking countries in Africa. Spanish Premier Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is blamed for exacerbating the problem with his grant of amnesty to a half-million illegals in 2005, who then moved, legally, throughout Europe.

Illegals from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Myanmar, who once took the land route to Europe, are coming now by sea from West Africa, too. Many don't have passports, but even when they do, they often won't show them to Spanish officials because they want to hide their identities. Once found out and identified, their home countries are pressured to take them back. Smugglers naturally encourage them to lie, and it doesn't take much encouragement. Africans pay up to a thousand euros ($1,300) for the trip to the Canaries, and a poor African and his family must scrimp, scrounge and save for years to get such a sum. Asians can get a packaged raw deal, paying up to $10,000 for the long journey with no guarantees. Some are stranded in Africa. The International Organization for Migration has saved 300 South Asians found wandering in the unforgiving Sahara.

Canarians say many of the illegals who stay in their islands deal in drugs. In March, an official from the U.S. Homeland Security Administration and a commissioner for foreign affairs for the Canaries met at the University of Texas in San Antonio to talk about their common problems. They were long on talk about "the root causes" in Africa, Asia and Mexico, but it was mostly talk about what everybody already knows: There are no jobs at home, but lots of brutal and corrupt governments.

The ancient Greeks and Romans knew about the Canaries. Plato speculated that they were the remains of the lost continent of Atlantis. No one knows whether Atlantis ever existed except in the imaginations of philosophers and writers. The Canaries are assuming a similarly fanciful myth in the imaginations of the desperately poor of Africa and Asia. They arrive looking for a better manana. Manana is often a myth, too.