By Sabina Castelfranco
Pozzallo, Sicily – Six months have passed since incidents in which African immigrants died at two Spanish enclaves on North Africa’s Mediterranean coast, and Spanish immigration experts now say lessons have been learned. Ambassador Manuel Pombo, who this week headed the Spanish delegation at an immigration conference in Sicily, says his country has realized it is not just southern European countries who are facing the pressure of thousands of African migrants but the countries in North Africa as well.
Spain is one of a handful of countries on the northern banks of the Mediterranean that has been struggling to find the best way to deal with thousands of African migrants arriving in search of a better life. Immigration experts say the majority of migrants now living in Spain have come from Morocco, which is just 15 kilometers across the Strait of Gibraltar.
Manuel Pombo is an ambassador at large and special representative for humanitarian and social affairs for the Spanish government. He headed the Spanish delegation at an immigration conference in Sicily this week. He says traffickers are no longer using the route across the strait.
“This coast is relatively sealed,” he said. “We have a very sophisticated radar system and surveillance system. We have a very sophisticated patrol system with Morocco. So really we have sealed to a certain extent as much as we can, more than 1,000 miles [1,600 kilometers] of coast.”
But, the ambassador adds, that does not mean that migrants have stopped trying to reach Spain. It means that agreements reached with Morocco are much more effective now.
“The smugglers have just moved the boats south because the Moroccan police and border patrols are now stronger, they are larger and they are largely cooperating,” he said. “They are not part of the problem, they are part of the solution.”
But the solution is still far from satisfactory because, the ambassador says, people who are desperate will stop at nothing, including risking their lives. And so, now that the easier route can no longer be used, they are taking greater risks.
“You put a barrier to the flow of immigrants through the straits [and then] they’re going to go around,” noted Spain’s ambassador. “They’re going to go to Mauritania and try to get through almost 300 miles [500 kilometers] of sea in a very, very terrible voyage into the Canary Islands.”
The ambassador says more than 200 people are arriving in the Canary Islands every week and this trend is expected to continue through the summer. He adds that it is impossible to know how many are setting off from the African coast and never making it to the other end. He says up to 40 percent may be dying at sea during the crossing.
Ambassador Pombo says the incidents at Spain’s North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla last September, in which 14 immigrants were killed, were an eye-opener for the Spanish government. He says Spain never expected something like that could occur and was not ready for it. It made the authorities realize the real problem was not in Spain, but in North Africa.
The African immigrants died when they attempted to scale razor-wire fences to get into the enclaves, from which they hope to be able to get to Spain. .
Pressure has been building on North African states from migrants coming from sub-Saharan Africa. And the countries in northern Africa find it more difficult to cope with the influx than southern European countries because they have less to offer to the migrant.
“The levels of development in North Africa are lower than in Southern Europe, the rate of unemployment in Morocco and Algeria and Tunisia is much higher,” said Pombo. “It reaches, according to some sources 23-24 percent. The structure of society is not as flexible, they still have a huge population working in agriculture.”
The ambassador says it was crucial to stabilize Morocco because what happened there directly affected Spain. And so it was necessary to understand Morocco’s problems and provide assistance. He says the two countries worked out what could be done, and Spain did its part.
“Offering to finance programs Moroccans wanted to undertake with international organizations to alleviate the problem,” he said. “For example for the repatriation of people on a voluntary basis and prevent any kind of danger of break of human rights through proper screening of would-be immigrants.”
Spain’s problem is far from being resolved but it has been working hard on its immigration policies. When migrants arrive they are placed in reception centers for identification but this often proves very difficult. Few migrants ask for political asylum and few are forcefully repatriated. The authorities are now making efforts to provide incentives that will encourage migrants to return voluntarily to their countries of origin.