Page last updated at 00:21 GMT, Sunday, 25 January 2009

Satellite helps fight illegal immigration

By Vanessa Buschschluter
BBC News

The Canary Islands have long been a magnet for illegal immigrants trying to reach Europe. A record 30,000 landed there in 2006, most of them making the perilous journey in simple wooden boats from West and North Africa.

Immigrant rescued by Spanish patrol
Even for those whose boats don't capsize, the voyage can be dangerous

As the numbers have swelled, the Spanish authorities have tried to contain the flow by reinforcing border controls and forging links with their counterparts in the migrants' countries of origin.

Ships and planes from seven EU countries now also patrol the Atlantic and the Mediterranean trying to intercept migrants at sea.

And this year, a new tool will be deployed to halt the traffic - a satellite communications system, which will improve contacts between Spain, Portugal and three of the countries the migrants set out from on their perilous crossing, Senegal, Mauritania and Cape Verde.

At the heart of the $3.2m Sea Horse Network, is a 3.7-tonne satellite linking seven control centres in Africa and Europe, enabling them to communicate more quickly, easily and securely.

Participating countries: Spain, Portugal, Senegal, Mauritania, Cape Verde
Invited to join: Morocco, Guinea Bissau, Gambia
The high-speed network makes it possible for officials to follow the progress of the rickety fishing boats from their point of departure in Africa to the high seas, without losing their trail when they cross national borders.

Sea Horse's nerve centre is located in the capital of the Canaries, Las Palmas. There, the information from local control centres in the five participating countries is collated.

A nerve centre will be connected to local control stations

Miguel Marquez of Indra, the company which has developed the system, says the technology is not new but that it is the first time it has been used to fight illegal immigration.

"All the information transmitted is encoded twice, making sure it's both confidential and safe," he says.


Lieutenant Eduardo Leon of the Spanish's Civil Guard's Fiscal and Border Control is delighted.

Overall figures:
Figures for the Canaries alone:
Source: Spanish Ministry of the Interior
"We've been holding joint patrols with the Senegalese police for a number of years, but before that, the only way we could reach them was by phone," he says.

He adds: "The phone lines to Senegal leave a lot to be desired. They can easily be intercepted, increasing the danger of alerting the criminals we want to stop in the first place."

Action already taken before this month's launch of the new phone link has had a marked effect.

The number of illegal migrants reaching Spain by sea fell by more than two-thirds between 2006 and 2008, according to the Ministry of the Interior.

We can't allow these criminal gangs to profit from the trafficking - this 1,000-mile journey has claimed too many lives already

Lieutenant Eduardo Leon, Fiscal and Border Control, Spanish Police

The drop was especially strongly felt in the Canaries, where 20,000 fewer illegal immigrants came ashore last year than in 2006.

However, at the same time, the flow of migrants from Africa to Italy and Malta sharply increased.

For Lt Leon, the goal is not just to prevent illegal immigration, it's also to halt crime and save lives. Each year hundreds of bodies are found on the Spanish coastline, but many more are believed to die at sea.

"We can't allow these criminal gangs to profit from the trafficking," Lt Leon says. "This 1,000-mile journey has claimed too many lives already."

He may be getting some unexpected help from a downturn in the Spanish economy, which pushed unemployment to 13.4% in November.

During a visit to the southern province of Almeria on Tuesday, the Secretary of State for Migration, Consuelo Rumi, said Spain's rising unemployment rate was contributing to the fall in illegal immigration.

"Work is the principal pull factor for foreigners to enter Spain," she said.

But Lt Leon argues that the main pull factor is the difference in living standards - and that is unlikely to change dramatically any time soon.

He sees the Sea Horse Network as a key tool in a continuing struggle.

Morocco, Guinea Bissau and Gambia have already been invited to join, and he hopes they will agree.

"Hopefully, that way we'll be able to stop this unnecessary loss of life," he says.

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