Last year, the UK’s ‘Sunday Herald Online’ reported that “… thousands of strong, young men at the razor-wire frontiers of these half-forgotten Spanish possessions launched their most spectacular raid yet upon fortress Europe...” Sokari Ekine explains that what drives most Africans to abandon their countries of origin is poverty and civil strife. She argues that the response of most Western European countries to the problem is influenced by cultural prejudice against those from the so-called “Third World”.
It is reported that 20,000 men, women and children have reached the shores of Spain since the beginning of the year, with over 1300 arriving two weekends ago. In eight months the numbers are three times bigger compared to last year. Those that make it to the shore, often swimming the last 100 meters, arrive half dead scattered on beaches amongst the sunbathing tourists.
In an article entitled " The Canaries, The Threatened Paradise," Spanish daily El Pais wrote: “What years ago a was slow and distant dripping of pateras (wooden boats), disembarking ten, twelve Moroccans, Senegalese, Guineanos or Gambians on beaches of Fuerteventura, has become an almost daily arrival of boats with 80, 90, the 100 or most sub-Saharans.” Arguments are breaking out between the various provincial and city governments over the numbers of migrants each is willing to accept from the two landing points, the Canaries and Andalusia. So far the number of people who have been deported to their countries of origin is about 1800.
There are layers of realities around immigration in Spain and Europe. The country has benefited from cheap Moroccan and West Africa labour on construction sites and in their agricultural sector, which has resulted in a 2.6% growth in the economy over the past 10 years. It is projected that without immigrant labour it would have fallen by 0.6% annually. Similar growth figures apply for the whole of Europe.
As long as Spain continues to reap benefits from cheap labour, the Spanish government’s rhetoric that it will not tolerate the continued arrival of migrants cannot be taken very seriously. The difference between today and a year ago can be explained in terms of numbers.
Another reality for the Spanish is that they are just waking up to the fact that Spain is the geographical space where Europe “almost kisses Africa” (Caryl Phillips, The European Tribe), or is it the other way around? The contrast between Spain and Africa is remarkable. The poverty existence of those who inhabit the latter and the wealthy existence of the Spanish is what prompts many to cross the Mediterranean in rickety launches. For some of these people, it is as if Spain is a promised land.
Some leave their own countries because of wars and endless conflicts. And it must be pointed out that for every migrant, illegal or legal, there are whole families - and in some cases communities - that survive on the reparations of those who make the crossing.
Spain and the EU are presently initiating a number of projects and policies in an attempt to slow down, and eventually stop, the migration of Africans to their shores. However, the polices being proposed are like using a rag to stop a dripping tap - cheap, temporary with no substance. This begs the question: are these policies aimed at reducing the numbers or spreading out the arrivals rather than stopping immigration altogether?
A Spanish NGO is opening a school in Senegal for 800 students. The aim is to educate both women (who make up 50% of the school population) and men. The ultimate goal of the school is to impart skills to theses young people so that they find employment in their countries of origin, rather than be compelled to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.
There are millions of young people presently trying to migrate to the North - this new policy would have to be replicated hundreds of times in countries throughout West, North and East Africa as well as South East Asia, the Middle East and beyond. The school is a positive step but the reality is that it is a bag of flour amongst a million hungry people.
In July, in a further sign of desperation, the Spanish government signed an unprecedented agreement with Senegal to allow the Guardia Civil to patrol Senegalese waters to prevent migrants from leaving their homeland. The EU is planning and funding a series of transit camps across the continent and North Africa (from Ukraine to Libya) as part of a holistic “system of control” along with the Schengen agreement, the closing of the two Spanish enclaves in Morocco, Ceuta and Melilla, that will effectively “barbed wire” Europe.
The contradiction is that many European countries such as Britain and Spain are in desperate need of increased migration due to falling birthrates and emigration of their own indigenous citizens. There are some 4 million Spanish people working abroad and only 2 million foreigners in Spain. The way around the need for migrant labour - professional, skilled and unskilled - is to present “legal” immigration in terms of economics and meeting temporary needs, whilst using asylum seekers and refugees as a way of rejecting “illegal” migration on ethnic and nationalistic grounds.
There is no doubt that Spanish and European immigration policies have a strong racial element. Are these new policies directed towards stopping African migrants, a response to the availability of cheap labour from Romania and Bulgaria? It is important to note that these two countries are soon going to be joining EU.
I do not think Spain has reached saturation point in its need for cheap labour but now African people are having to compete for jobs with Eastern European people who are also arriving in large numbers.
Obviously the lure of hard cash made in Spain drives the migrants to risk their lives (often repeatedly) to reach Europe. One of the worst tragedies started last Christmas, when about 53 Senegalese, most from the village of Casamance, left by boat from Cabo Verde to the Canaries. The boat was relatively large but had no cover or shade. There appears to have been some chaos around the departure of the boat as apparently the Spaniard in charge jumped ship at the last minute. It is reported that five of the Senegalese also left the boat and another got scared after the boat set off and jumped out and swam back to shore.
The boat is thought to have passed Mauritania but when it reached Nuadibu (Nuadhibou, Mauritania) there was a storm and the passengers lost control of the boat. They then started to call friends and family. One of the people they called was a Spanish pirate. A few hours later they were rescued by another boat which towed them to the middle of the ocean and then abandoned them. They only had 40 litres of fuel, which ran out, and, as if this was not enough, they had to cope with the storms and high seas of the Atlantic.
It is reported that there were a series of storms, with one approximately every ten days, and high winds pushed the boat towards Barbados over a four-month period. The people died of hunger and thirst with bodies being thrown overboard one by one as they died.
There are many West Africans who have been able to create a successful life in Spain and elsewhere in Europe but also many who remain impoverished and vulnerable. Interestingly, I was fortunate enough to have a chat recently with a person who arrived by boat two months ago from Mauritania and had been sent to Granada from the Canaries by the government. He had it all worked out that he would be working on a building site and would have his papers in two years. Needless to say, there is very little chance for this person to get papers in two years. Most probably, he will be exploited and got rid of when he no longer serves his purpose.
In Granada, there is a noticeable increase in the numbers of mostly Senegalese men on the streets compared to a year ago. I mentioned this to my Senegalese hair braider who has resided in Granada for the past five years. She replied, “There are too many coming today. Before we were not many. Now there are too many and there is nothing for them to do, the only source of income open to them is to sell CDs. That is not a life.”
In terms of legal rights and status, migrants can be divided into three groups: the educated elite and experts, who are subject to very few restrictions and social disadvantages; the mass of migrants who usually seek seasonal work, whose rights are severely restricted and whose situation is characterised by poor working conditions, high unemployment, and poor living conditions; and “illegal aliens” who are needed on the labour market, but are politically excluded and have no rights whatsoever.
The irony is that only 30 years ago thousands of seasonal Spanish migrants, especially from Andalusia, spent their summers working in northern Europe, Germany and France mainly picking fruit, but also working on building sites and as casual labourers, just like the Moroccans and West Africans are doing in Spain today. In those days the borders were open and skin colour was not an issue. It is interesting how far international relations have deteriorated, but most importantly, it is remarkable how the state of affairs seems to be influenced by cultural prejudice against those from the so-called “Third World”.
*Sokari Ekine produces the blog Black Looks,