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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 July 2006, 07:28 GMT 08:28 UK
African migrants' desperate journey
By Yvonne Ndege
BBC, Tenerife

Two would-be illegal immigrants after arriving in an open wooden fishing boat in Tenerife
Thousands of Africans have risked their lives to reach Tenerife
Nigerian migrant worker Akum knew that she had to break the law to get to Europe.

She works in the popular tourist resort of Tenerife in the Canary Islands - now becoming one of the chosen destinations for people desperate to escape Africa.

"The problem is life in Africa is terrible, there is serious poverty there and for many of us there is no option but to get out, get out via illegal means," she explains.

Akum is just one of the thousands of Africans who have risked their lives crossing the sea to seek new opportunities in the European Union.

"If you go to the British Embassy or French or Spanish it is next to impossible to get a visa to visit. I have no intention of going back to Africa," says Akum, who like many refugees did not give her full name for fear of persecution by the Spanish authorities.

To look into the eyes of a man who has been at sea for seven days, not sure whether he would get to these shores alive or dead - it's just terrible
Austin Taylor, relief co-ordinator

Tenerife - famous for its fun, sun and sand - is now on the frontline of international efforts to keep illegal African migrants out of Europe.

Since the beginning of 2006, up to 10,000 Africans have boarded handmade boats in the hope of getting into Europe, ready to risk death.

That is already twice the number recorded in 2005.

Officials say more than 1,700 have died along the way and coastguards working off the Canary Islands have rescued hundreds of men, women and children.


The Canary Islands lie only 100km (60 miles) off Africa's west coast, but they belong to Spain, an EU member state.

I said we ought to send these people arriving in small ships to Madrid and Brussels so that they can understand how serious the situation is
Ricardo Melchior
Canary Islands' president

If would-be migrants arrive on shore alive, a borderless Europe means the prospect of eventually being able to travel, work and live in any of the 25 EU countries.

Similarly perilous journeys are tried from north-east Africa through Libya and into Italy and Malta via the island of Lampedusa.

Ceuta and Melilla, Spanish-ruled enclaves on the African mainland, have also attracted migrants.

Migrants who survive the journey to the Canaries are treated by the Red Cross, then detained and flown to the Spanish capital, Madrid, where their asylum claims are processed.

If they are unlucky, as many are, they are flown home.

Austin Taylor, who runs the emergency relief co-ordination centre in Tenerife, believes it is time governments try to sort the problem out and ensure safe passage for migrants.

"To look into the eyes of a man who has been at sea for seven days, not sure whether he would get to these shores alive or dead - it's just terrible," he says.

"We the rescue services need more support and more resources to cope with the numbers," Mr Taylor argues.

"That support has to come from all quarters, this is not just a problem for Spain, it's a problem for Europe."


Individual agreements between Spain and West African states to repatriate migrants have been ineffective.

Women in Tenerife
I can earn 600 euros per month, which I can send to Dakar, to my family... it goes a long way
Aloom, Senegalese migrant

European and African government ministers and United Nations representatives are meeting in Rabat, Morocco on Monday to try to devise a plan to address the question of illegal migration.

The Canary Islands' president, Ricardo Melchior, says such a meeting is overdue, to address what he calls a crisis.

"Two months ago I said we ought to send these people arriving in small ships to Madrid and Brussels so that they can understand how serious the situation is," he says.

"This upcoming meeting I think means that finally they are starting to get it."


The latest move comes after last month's decision by EU members to deploy coastguard patrols and helicopter surveillance units off the coasts Senegal, Mauritania, Cape Verde, and The Gambia.

Research suggests that parts of Europe need more immigrants due to labour shortages, but Europe insists that migration must be legal.

Some commentators feel that giving migrants legal status would encourage more to people make the journey.

Already, many of the migrants feel they have no option but to head for Europe.

"I cannot speak for all of Africa, I can only speak about Senegal," said Aloom, a Senegalese woman who shares a block of flats with about 40 compatriots in El Fraile, in the south of Tenerife.

"The government of Senegal are trying to put the country on the right track - but it will take a long time, I cannot wait.

"Here in Spain I can earn 600 euros per month [$763], which I can send to Dakar, to my family, that is almost 40,000 in the local currency, it goes a long way," Aloom says.

Another migrant, who wanted to remain anonymous, said the journey across the sea showed how desperate people were.

"Many are tricked into thinking that it is a very short journey, that it is safe and that they will be here in no time. That is not true, it is extremely dangerous and hundreds of people have died."

The BBC's Africa Have Your Say programme will be discussing migration at 1600GMT on Thursday 6 July 2006.

Is migration a problem?
05 Jul 06 |  Africa


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