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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 September 2006, 11:32 GMT 12:32 UK
Small islands' migration drama
By Dominic Bailey
BBC News, Tenerife

African migrants arriving in Tenerife
African fishing boats arrive daily
Families visiting Tenerife's resort of Los Cristianos tuck into their paellas, steins of beer and piles of ice cream, mainly oblivious to the wretched boatload of African immigrants being escorted into the harbour by the Coastguard.

The more curious holidaymakers gather to watch the spectacle for a while before drifting back to celebrations marking the patron saint of local fishermen.

On the quayside, the emergency services continue in a now familiar routine of disembarkation and health checks before packing the immigrants on to buses and transferring them to the courts and overloaded detention centres.

Over the past few years, the Canary Islands have been used to the arrival of "pateras", small boats holding up to 12 immigrants from Senegal or Guinea.

Now, bigger "cayucos" - brightly painted Senegalese fishing boats - are arriving daily, packed with up to 150 young men desperate for a better life, hoping for work or schooling in the West.

I have come to look for work and left behind my whole family. There was no help for us there
Migrant from Senegal

Some speak of escaping war and poverty by risking eight to 10 days on treacherous seas with little more than rice and biscuits to eat. The state of those arriving has varied dramatically.

Some have been taken away on stretchers, weak and emaciated, with arms burnt by the sea salt.

Others have arrived in good health, needing little medical assistance at all.

One policeman guarding the latest arrivals told the gathered journalists not to be taken in by stories of hardship and days at sea.

"If they had been at sea for 10 days, in open boats, they would not be in the state they are in," he said.

Map of Senegal and Canary Islands
"Where are the signs of salt from the sea, the sunburn, legs that have been soaked in water for 10 days? Some of these are arriving fresher than lettuce. Something else is happening out there."

There is a theory that the cayucos are being loaded up with passengers from bigger boats when they are within closer range of the Canaries.

A GPS system was found on one boat, which may suggest its helmsmen ensured a direct crossing.

But many of the 73 on board were grateful for the attentions of the Red Cross - the drinking water, new clothes and sandals, the younger ones showing their age by peeling size-labels off the clothes and sticking them on each other's faces.

Rice and biscuits

The police presence made the immigrants reluctant to talk too much - the less the authorities know about what language they speak and where they are from, the harder it is for them to be repatriated.

One, who called himself Maiasinko, said he had saved up little by little since 2000 to pay the fare for the journey, which is said to be a few hundred euros per person. He said they were fleeing a rebellion in Casamance, Senegal.

Sall from Senegal
Some say they did not have a choice but to flee their country

"I have come to look for work and left behind my whole family. There was no help for us there."

He said of the journey: "It was between living and dying."

Another, Sall, said he was 16, but did not pay for his place on the boat.

"I came to save my life. I could stay there and die or come here. In Casamance there are too much problems, the rebellion just kill, kill, kill.

"I lost my sister, my father and have left behind my mother. I need to go to school. I haven't finished school."

Another, who did not have time to give his name before a guard's glare silenced him, said there was little food on the boat - rice cooked on small stoves and dry biscuits.

"We crossed the ocean, the waves were high and water came in," he said.

Not all the boats make the crossing and some migrants have arrived dead or dying.

One nearby beach was recently the scene of bikini-clad sunbathers taking water and food to a boatload of immigrants washed up on the shore.

Local hostility

Many islanders are losing patience - both those who make their living from the tourist industry, and the authorities, who are struggling to cope.

Lorry driver Antonion Miguel, 44, says there are just too many migrants for a small island with few jobs.

"Where do we put them all?" he asks.

"Something is happening, it's not normal. The government has to take steps... or is it because they want cheap labour?"

Luis Spinola from Tenerife
Luis Spinola blames the EU for not helping with the influx
Luis Spinola, who runs whale-watching trips, is also unhappy.

"They are poor people and it is bad for them, but as we have to take care of them, it is eventually going to push up our taxes," he says.

"I blame Europe - we are all Europeans now, not just Spanish or English, so other EU countries need to do more to help, they have to collaborate more. They have to help out with centres to hold them.

"There also has to be more help to fight corruption in the African countries they are coming from.

"The majority of tourists don't know about the situation, but if less attention is paid to them - as all our police are taken up looking after the arrivals - it could affect them in the longer term."

As the immigrants are bussed away, business soon returns to normal for the ferry passengers and sun worshippers of Los Cristianos.

The emergency tents of the Red Cross are taken down between landings. The cayucos are emptied of their stinking contents and sprayed clean before being broken up and taken away, the scar removed from the landscape of pleasure boats and giant ferries. Until the next time.

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