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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 October 2006, 12:55 GMT 13:55 UK
One village's African boat trauma

Every day hundreds of African migrants cross the Atlantic Ocean to the Canary Islands in search of a better life. Debbie Woodmansey, who has lived in Gran Canaria for two-and-a-half years, describes the impact this has on her village.

Let me first tell you about our village. It is a small, friendly, ancient Canarian fishing village which is developing to incorporate the growing population.

A migrant arrives in the Canary Islands in need of medical help

Life here is hard, hot, but relaxed.

I became aware of the boats from Africa not long after I arrived. At first I would just see piles of battered boats in the corner of the harbour. People told me they had arrived carrying up to 100 people but I didn't believe them. It was beyond comprehension.

One day in the summer of 2005, I came home from work to find my daughter really distressed. She told me she had seen hundreds of African people sitting on the ground in the square looking sad and hungry.


What was a shock then has now sadly become a regular sight. The sirens, the police, the desperation of the boat people. These are all commonplace, as is the feeling of helplessness experienced by the villagers who truly want to do something to help.

Boats now arrive most days, sometimes several in a day.


They hold around 100 men, women and children. They are now about 12 metres long but this doesn't mean they are safer.

I wouldn't take my daughter to the next village in one. These people cross an ocean in them, and a dangerous one at that.

We always know when a boat is about to arrive as the harbour fills up with tents, hospital beds and wheelchairs. When we see the helicopter arrive, we know that someone needs to get to hospital at great speed.

The sadness of this sight never fades.

The arrival of the boat people is normal conversation for us, here. We discuss how many arrived last week, what time the boat came in last night, how many didn't make it.

We are all affected emotionally by what we see and hear. We witness the plight of the African people every day.

Drain on resources

Boat arriving
More than 27,000 migrants have arrived in the Canaries this year

However, we can't help but notice the effect on our community.

We live on a very small island and this is a major drain on the resources here.

The navy boats, the coast guards, the civil guard and the Red Cross used to work together fighting the battle against drugs. Now it seems all their time and resources are spent working with the boat people.

What is happening now in the battle against drugs? This is something the islanders worry about.

Countless boats and bodies never make it

The villagers are not angry with the people, they are angry about the drain on resources. It cannot be sustained.

The boat people cannot leave the island until they are fit. Because they arrive in such an appalling condition - they are too weak to walk or stand - this takes quite a while. Who foots the bill for their medical care?

Sahara dust

Early in September, we had the dust blowing over from the Sahara. There were many boats crossing at that time. The people were exposed to the punishing sun's intensified rays with little more than a glass of water a day and a bowl of rice.

Seeing them, it was hard to believe they had even had that much to eat and drink, and they were the lucky ones. Countless boats and bodies never make it.

While the dust was here and when the storms came, we silently hoped for the safety of the little boats we knew were making the crossing.

Immigrant in Red Cross tent
Red Cross estimates suggest one in five die during the crossing

Bodies are sometimes brought in by the fishermen, as they sometimes catch them in their nets. I once heard of a fisherman finding a pregnant woman floating in the sea.

A few days ago, 220 people arrived in one day. When the authorities were cleaning one of the boats before it was destroyed, they found three dead bodies.

A woman had arrived with a one-week-old baby, and the baby had died. Her loving husband had sent them instead of himself.

The villagers have such sympathy for these desperate people. We sit silently as the convoy heads out of our village and up to the capital, Las Palmas, listening to the sirens and holding back our tears.

I had family visiting on one occasion, we were down by the beach. As our children swam happily in the sea, the boats arrived. The contrast was so sharp.

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