Spain Attempts to Curtail Illegal Immigration

Aerial shots of an immigrant rescue operation

Aerial shots of an immigrant rescue operation off the Canary Island of Fuerteventura Spanish Civil Guard hide caption

itoggle caption Spanish Civil Guard

Spain is building barbed-wire fences and installing radar sensors on its coast of the Strait of Gibraltar to try to keep out illegal immigrants from North Africa. Immigrants try to make the 60-mile trip in rickety wooden boats. The Spanish coast guard often discovers them after days adrift, dehydrated and near death.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here's another group of people searching for new homes. Thirty thousand African migrants are in North Africa trying to get into Europe illegally, according to the European Union. One common route is via Spain's Canary Islands, which lie on the Atlantic off the coast of northwest Africa. Now for people fleeing poverty and war, this is a potential stepping stone to a dream of better life in Europe. It is also a very dangerous trip. Jerome Socolovsky accompanied the Spanish Civil Guard on a maritime patrol off the Canary Islands.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY reporting:

Corporal Enrique Ortega(ph) steers his Civil Guard cutter along the rugged coastline of Fuerteventura. It's one of the Canary Islands. It lies about 60 miles from Africa in the shores of Moroccan-controlled western Sahara.

(Soundbite of cutter)

SOCOLOVSKY: The Canaries are a major tourist destination for northern Europeans, but every year thousands of Africans try to get here in small, overcrowded wooden boats known in Spanish as pateras. It's hard to imagine how the pateras make it, considering how this 56-foot cutter fares in the turbulent waters of the Atlantic. Loose objects go flying as the skipper struggles to control his vessel.

(Soundbite of cutter)

Corporal ENRIQUE ORTEGA (Spanish Civil Guard): (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: `This is what it's like 80 percent of the time,' Ortega says. `You get waves several yards high because we're on the ocean. This is how it is when we have to rescue the pateras.' Ortega says the most dangerous part is when a patera is spotted and rescue is imminent. After 20 hours squeezed together, dehydrated and hypothermic, the migrants are nervous and fearful.

Corp. ORTEGA: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: `When they see the police boat,' he says, `they see their salvation. So they all get up, and that's what makes many pateras tip over.'

Corp. ORTEGA: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: `We do what we can. We throw out the life raft and try to rescue as many as we can, but it all happens very fast. Many of them are numb,' he says, `and often they can't swim.' Ortega says scores of migrants drowned during rescues last year. A Moroccan immigrant group estimates that about 4,000 people have died in recent years trying to reach Spain by the Canary Islands or across the Strait of Gibraltar. Those who do survive the journey to Fuerteventura cannot be deported because their native countries won't take them back.

(Soundbite of traffic)

SOCOLOVSKY: Mohammed Valde(ph), a teen-ager from Guinea-Bissau, has just spent another frustrating day in search of work.

MOHAMMED VALDE (Teen-ager): (Through Translator) It's been more than 25 days now. Every day I look and I look and I look for work, but I haven't found any. I wish I can go to Barcelona.

SOCOLOVSKY: Authorities have been flying most of the migrants to the Spanish mainland so that they don't overwhelm the islands. Many of those who remain stay at the Red Cross shelter in Fuerteventura. Gerardo Mesanoda(ph) runs the center. He's skeptical of the Spanish government's promises to tackle the problem by making legal immigration easier.

Mr. GERARDO MESANODA (Red Cross): (Through Translator) Well, that's what they say, but the reality is different. If there were more access to consulates and embassies, the migrants could spend a reasonable sum of money to come here to see if they can find a job, and if not, go back to their own country.

SOCOLOVSKY: He says many of the migrants have spent their entire life savings to get here.

(Soundbite of cutter)

SOCOLOVSKY: Back on the Civil Guard cutter, Corporal Ortega says he sympathizes with the migrants' plight.

Corp. ORTEGA: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: `I think immigration is a right,' Ortega says, `and all the people in the Third World have the right to improve their quality of life.'

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: `But we also have the right to guarantee our way of life, our retirement plans, our social security systems,' the skipper adds. `We can't absorb all the hunger of the Third World.'

Spanish officials say there's been a dramatic decline in the number of migrants trying to reach the Canary Islands. That's been the case since the Moroccan government started cracking down on human traffickers in western Sahara. But with so many migrants desperate to escape poverty in Africa, authorities fear they'll take even greater risks trying to find another route into Europe. For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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