Spain Disperses African Migrants Across Country

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Record numbers of African migrants are arriving on Spanish territory daily. Spain's latest tactic for dealing with the influx involves gathering thousands of African immigrants from reception camps on the Canary Islands and delivering them to spots across the mainland. This has angered regional governments.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here's a gateway that illegal immigrants use to reach Europe. They start in Africa, then take open, wooden boats to the Canary Islands, well off the western coast. Those islands belong to Spain. And so far this year more than 18,000 Africans have taken that journey to Spanish territory. That is triple last year's total.

Holding centers are jammed now, so many immigrants are being taken to the mainland, which is where reporter Jerome Socolovsky found some of them.

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY reporting:

On a busy sidewalk in central Madrid, young Senegalese men are selling pirated CDs and DVDs. They display their illegal merchandise on blankets on the ground, and hawk it in broken Spanish.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

SOCOLOVSKY: But business is slow.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

SOCOLOVSKY: I haven't sold anything all day, nothing, one of them says. They refuse to reveal their names or ages, or even talk about their plans. In fact, many African migrants destroy their identity documents when they arrive in the country. They know that international law prohibits Spain from deporting them unless it can identify their home countries.

So the government says it has no choice but to charter planes and fly them from the Canary Islands to cities on the mainland. But the receiving cities are not happy about it. Several, governed by the opposition Popular Party, accuse Spain's socialist government of foisting the problem onto them.

Carlos Clemente Aguado(ph) is the deputy minister of immigration for the Madrid region, one of the 17 so-called autonomous communities that make up Spain.

Mr. CARLOS CLEMENTE AGUADO (Deputy Minister of Immigration; Madrid): (Speaking foreign language)

SOCOLOVSKY: When 85 percent of all the people that they're sending go to three autonomous communities, Clemente Aguado says, and these autonomous communities are governed by the popular party, one at least has to wonder. Clemente Aguado says the influx is out of control because of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's amnesty that legalized more than half a million immigrants last year.

Mr. AGUADO: (Speaking foreign language)

SOCOLOVSKY: Let's not hide the truth. The truth is that it's organized crime that's sending these migrants to Spain because they know that Spain is going to give them working papers, he says. The government acknowledges that organized crime rings on the West African coasts provide the boats that take the immigrants to the Canary Islands.

Socialist Party official Alfonso Perales(ph) said on Spanish radio that Spain simply has the misfortune of being the European country that is closest to sub-Saharan Africa.

Mr. ALFONSO PERALES (Socialist Party Official): (Speaking foreign language)

SOCOLOVSKY: We can say that this is not being handled well, that the socialist government is doing a bad job, he said. But this is a real problem. The reality is that we are the southern edge of Europe, and the Canary Islands are the southern edge of the southern edge.

The European border control agency, Frontex, has begun deploying some patrol boats and aircraft inside the coastal waters of several West African countries. But still the boatloads come. Authorities can only hold the migrants for the maximum legal internment period of 40 days. After that they're released onto the streets with an unenforced(ph) expulsion order.

Most have no alternative but to disappear into Spain's underground economy.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

SOCOLOVSKY: You need papers to work and I don't have papers, so I have to sell CDs, pirated CDs. It's not good because the police are trying to catch us all the time, says this young Senegalese vendor.

A fellow immigrant has just spotted the police. The migrants snatch up their blankets. They have drawstrings sewn around the edges, which turn them into sacks. They sling their sacks over their shoulders, and in an instant, they're gone.

For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Madrid.

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