The Canary Islands’ close proximity to the African coast makes the Spanish archipelago an attractive gate to Europe

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Canary Islands: Refugee crisis
on the Afro-European fault line

By Daniel González Herrera, Spanish correspondent

5 November 2006: The large-scale movement of populations is without doubt one of the great calamities facing the western world – not least in the Canary Islands. On the one hand there are desperate people with no hope of any sort of life either now or in the future in their homelands and desperately seek a new beginning elsewhere. On the other hand, the inhabitants of the developed countries are faced with illegal immigration, and its associated problems, on an unprecedented scale.

| Background | Public reaction | Possible solutions |

Nowhere is this drama being played out with such intensity as in this Spanish archipelago, less than 200 kilometres off the African coastline, where incessant streams of desperate human beings seek to gain access to Europe by the back door.

Crammed in squalid open boats that barely make it, if at all, these wretched refugees are in a curious sort of way repeating the sufferings of their 15th Century forebears who made the same journeys in slave ships. The face of the exploiters has changed, but the odyssey is the same.

What is happening on the Canary Islands, with the massive influx of sub-Saharan refugees, is particularly significant because for decades the islands have traditionally been a sanctuary for immigrants.

During the 1950s Spanish people abandoned their homes in droves to escape the misery and hunger in the years following the civil war. The islands were indeed the land of immigrants.

The Canary Islands Vice-minister of Emigration, Efraín Medina, recalled that situation. He said: “Everything that is happening now with immigration occurred here forty years ago. Then there were Mafias, illegal vessels, complaints from Venezuela and Argentina telling Franco to control the irregular immigration. And now, it is happening again, but inversely.”

Extreme right-wing groups have demonstrated against these massive arrivals, but this is not yet the general feeling. However, the people do want a prompt solution to the problem.

To date, more than 20,000 refugees have arrived in this migratory explosion, never seen before in the history of the archipelago.

Arrivals by open boat first occurred in 1994, and it was considered then as something novel. But by the year 2000, the number of open boats to arrive had increased to 87, having transported a total of 2,286 people. In this year alone, that number had multiplied itself by nine. The record arrival was on 29 May 2006, when eleven craft brought in seven hundred immigrants in one day.

The background to the problem is the extreme poverty at home. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in 2002, it was reported: “The proportion of people living in poverty in sub-Saharan Africa is the highest of the world: almost half of all African people live with less than one dollar per day.”

Constant wars, lack of political liberty, epidemics and international isolation must all be added to this dire situation. To flee the continent provides a solution not only for those who emigrate, but also for their families who remain.

According to a report by the Elcano Royal Institute of International and Strategic Studies, some 326 million euros are remitted to that part of the African continent, thus taking more than half a million people out of poverty.

Public reaction
Public reaction to these massive arrivals has varied, but in general all agree on the need to contain the situation. Miguel Zerolo, Mayor of Santa Cruz, capital of Tenerife, said it was a “national emergency”, and complained that government action had been “completely insufficient”.

On the other hand, the Mayor of Las Palmas, José Manuel Soria, a member of the People’s Party, praised the work of those who take care of the immigrants. “They are exceptional persons. They work with courage and humanitarian sense, not creating problems, but solving them.” He called on Spanish Prime Minister Rodriguez Zapatero to do the same.

But a spokesman for the Socialist Party of the Canaries, Juan Carlos Alemán, fiercely defended the central Government, saying that thanks to its policy “open boats from Morocco no longer come”.

The Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, has embarked on diplomatic journeys through some African countries such as Gambia and Senegal in an effort to reach agreements on containing illegal emigration and to accept repatriations in exchange for economic aid.

In the street, opinions are divided. On the one hand there are those who recall the time when they or their ancestors saw themselves in similar straits and can put themselves in the place of people at their extremity. On the other hand, there are those who cannot draw a parallel between their own earlier immigration and the exodus from Africa.

Others organise public demonstrations demanding immediate solutions. The Confederation of Residents’ Associations of the Canaries and the group Canary Identity organised a public demonstration on 29 October 2006 with the slogan: “Effective control of immigration”. The Mayor of Santa Cruz, Miguel Zerolo, said its motives were “reasonable”.

But Juan Carlos Alemán, of the Socialist Party, said the demonstration was a “monumental mistake”, and would lay down “the seeds of feelings that will be very difficult to eradicate”.

For his part, City Councillor of La Laguna and Socialist Party parliamentarian Santiago Pérez, who is also an expert on constitutional law, said he would prosecute anyone making apologias for racism or xenophobia, which are offences under the Spanish Penal Code.

Possible solutions
The solution to this massive problem will neither be easy nor cheap, and will require a great deal of political will. But a solution is possible.

To use the army to strengthen frontiers, as proposed by some, would not work – refugees, and above all the criminals who transport them, would soon find a new weak point to gain access to the islands.

Asunción Cabrera, professor of Public International Law in the University of La Laguna, has suggested an expansion of legal immigration, tackling the underground economy in the places of destination and economic aid to help in the development of the countries of origin. She added that European Union, US and Japanese protectionist policies on agriculture are contributing to poverty in Africa.

As the Spanish economist professor Xavier Sala, of Columbia University, New York, said: “To buy European milk in Africa…is cheaper than to buy African milk. This implies that thousand of litres of milk finish up by being thrown into the sea because Africans – and when I say Africans I am not talking about African companies, but about the children, of which 14 million are orphans because of AIDS – with two or three cows, some of them children, cannot sell their milk.”

It is obvious that while disparities of this nature exist without redress, then the wound through which Black Africa bleeds will remain open and it will not be possible to contain this flow of human traffic. To give hope to those who have never had it, will be the fundamental first step towards containing the effects of this appalling catastrophe.

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