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.