Page last updated at 23:14 GMT, Monday, 13 July 2009 00:14 UK

Migrant tide wanes with Spain's economy

Canary Islands

By Steve Kingstone
BBC News, Canary Islands

The sea is calm and the skies clear, as the Spanish coastguard boat speeds out into the Atlantic.

Behind us are the Canary Islands - vast, volcanic hunks of rock, dotted with hotels.

Ever popular with tourists, the archipelago has also long been a destination of choice for African migrants hoping to reach the European Union.

In April and May, we didn't have a single boat
Orlando Ramos Alayon
Spanish Coastguard

The benign summer weather offers perfect conditions for "cayucos", the fragile, single-engined boats which make the crossing from Senegal or Mauritania.

But today, like most days in 2009, the horizon and the radar screen are blank. There is not a vessel in sight.

"This year, the numbers have more than just stabilised - they're falling," explains Orlando Ramos Alayon, the coastguard skipper.

"There's permanent vigilance now, both by police and coastguard, at the national and EU level."

Improved vigilance

Immigrants reaching Canary Islands

Year on year comparison for the first five months of 2009

2008 2009
January 719 431
February 615 649
March 545 392
April 464 0
May 744 0
Total 3087 1472
SOURCE: Frontex

The tide of illegal migration peaked in 2006, when 600 boats brought 31,678 desperate people to the Canaries in search of better times.

Often, the cayucos would be crammed full with up to 90 migrants, who had paid handsomely to make the perilous journey.

Many more - certainly hundreds, and perhaps thousands - died during the crossing. The figure is a matter of guesswork.

But over the past three years, numbers have been falling steadily.

In 2008, 9,181 migrants made it to the Canaries, a 71% drop compared with 2006.

And during the first five months of 2009, numbers were down by half again on the same period last year.

"In April and May, we didn't have a single boat," explains Mr Alayon proudly.

Without doubt, the fall is partly down to improved vigilance.

Under the EU's Frontex programme, Spain's Civil Guard police patrol the waters off West Africa, in partnership with the authorities from Senegal and Mauritania.

In the first six months of 2009, these patrols diverted 762 migrants back to their points of departure.

Additionally, a single, satellite communications network, called Sea Horse, pools information between the two continents.

Jail terms

In Tenerife, the largest of the islands, I was given rare access to the Guardia Civil's newly-upgraded control room, where radar screens show the real-time locations of all boats approaching the Canaries.

Sgt Miguel Angel Moreno
In the past, the first we knew of them was often when they landed on a beach, but now we can control them from much further out
Sgt Miguel Angel Moreno
Guardia Civil

On another bank of screens, long-range cameras can offer live images of vessels within five miles (8km) of the coast.

"Legitimately registered craft generally send out a satellite signal identifying themselves," says Sgt Miguel Angel Moreno. "If a boat doesn't, that puts us on alert."

"So far this year we've had only five migrant boats arrive in Tenerife, and all were detected and intercepted using this technology."

At this range, within Spain's territorial waters, the cayucos will receive assistance to come ashore, rather than be diverted back.

But Sgt Moreno stresses that the new technology has given the police unprecedented levels of information about incoming boats.

"In the past, the first we knew of them was often when they landed on a beach, but now we can control them from much further out," he says.

Part of that control includes attempting to identify and detain the traffickers, who often travel with their paying customers, piloting the boats.

Migrants after arriving on Tenerife (29 March 2009)
Over the past three years, the number of migrants has been falling steadily

Using cameras equipped with night-vision and infrared technology, the police study the body language of those on board, looking for anyone who appears to be at the helm or otherwise giving orders.

Once on dry land, the passengers are processed and where possible repatriated. But increasingly, the traffickers face jail terms.

"Previously, everyone arriving on a cayuco was treated the same, but now we are actively looking out for the traffickers," explains Jose Antonio Batista, the Spanish government's representative in Tenerife.

"This is an important deterrent, because instead of coming here and knowing they'll be sent home, they now know they'll be sent to prison."

Mr Batista points out that 22 people are currently serving sentences for people-trafficking, while a further 169 suspects are in prison awaiting trial.


But besides heightened surveillance and tougher penalties for traffickers, there is another deterrent at work - the recession.

For just as the tide of migrants rose when Spain's economy was booming, so it has fallen in line with the slowdown, which has left the country with an 18.7% unemployment rate - the EU's highest.

When the crisis started, things got difficult for immigrants. Now, I'm lucky if I get one day's work a week
Nigerian immigrant

Earlier, in the capital, Madrid, I found a group of around two-dozen African migrants killing time in a plaza by playing cards.

When the Spanish authorities failed to repatriate them within 40 days of their arrival, they were allowed to stay here.

But without work permits, they live in administrative limbo; and even if they could work, they would be competing with Spain's 3.5 million official unemployed.

"I don't recommend Spain at this moment," sighs a 28-year-old migrant, who came here from Cameroon in 2004.

African immigrants in Spain try to find work (20 November 2008)
Spanish unemployment rate has reached 18.7%, the EU's highest

"To me, it's like Africa, only civilised. And in some ways, it's worse than in Africa - because here, you have to pay for everything you eat."

Another migrant, aged 27 from Nigeria, describes the growing difficulties in finding work on the black market.

"When I came here three years ago there was lots of construction work," he says, "but when the crisis started, things got difficult for immigrants. Now, I'm lucky if I get one day's work a week."

So what would he say to someone back home in Nigeria who was thinking of coming to Spain now?

"My advice is that they're better not to even think of coming to Europe," is the terse reply. "For now, it's really hard here."

Continued attraction

In an age of mobile phones and instant messaging, that downbeat assessment seems to have filtered back to would-be migrants back home, and it may be a factor in the sharp drop in cayuco numbers.

It doesn't matter how bad the economic crisis is here, it's always going to be worse in Africa - and people will continue to risk their lives
Austin Taylor Wainwright
Spanish Red Cross

But many others will continue to risk their lives.

On Monday this week, a boat carrying 68 migrants made landfall on the tiny Canarian island of El Hierro.

A further passenger had perished during the crossing - a grim reminder of the dangers involved.

"It's a relief to see that fewer people are coming, but it doesn't mean the need to make the journey has disappeared," explains Austin Taylor Wainwright, an emergency relief co-ordinator with the Spanish Red Cross.

"If you look at the unemployment rate in Senegal, it's around 50%," he adds.

"It doesn't matter how bad the economic crisis is here, it's always going to be worse in Africa - and people will continue to risk their lives."

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