Magazine article The Spectator

People-Traffickers Are Not the Problem: People Are

Magazine article The Spectator

People-Traffickers Are Not the Problem: People Are

Article excerpt


Right now, somewhere in the Atlantic, off the western shores of Morocco, ragged convoys of African migrants are heading for Europe. Their craft are long, low fishing boats, like giant canoes, crammed perilously full. Their destination is the Canary Islands, along Europe's newest migration route, a 500-mile sea journey from Mauritania on Africa's west coast. A typical boat holds 50 young men, and may have been at sea for a week. Many arrive at dawn, guided for the last few hours of the night by the dark bulk of Tenerife's Teide volcano. A few miles offshore they are close enough to hear the thump of tourist discos, and switch on mobile telephones brought from home.

Some migrants call the Spanish authorities to tow them in, arriving at ferry piers and beaches beneath the stunned gazes of British and German tourists. New arrivals are chilled to the bone, huddled together in cheap waterproofs and wellington boots.

The lucky ones have lifejackets and secondhand GPS navigation devices.

In recent weeks officials and aid workers have noticed that boats are less and less wellequipped, and journeys seem to be taking longer. The reason for this carries political implications not just for Spain but for the whole European Union. Tricked once too often by the people-smuggling gangs that opened up the route, migrants have cut out the middle men. The latest migrants have been smuggling themselves into Europe.

Dr Santiago Alonso, a doctor with a Spanish aid group active in Mauritania, Médicos del Mundo, explains, 'The mafia trick and cheat them. Sometimes they take their money, head out to sea with them, then jump into another boat and abandon them. Or they do a big loop and drop them on a beach somewhere up the African coast. It seems that some of the immigrants now buy the boats themselves. They club together to buy a boat, supplies and motors.

It's cheaper for them.' In short, Europe is facing a DIY migration crisis. That crisis exposes, with unusual clarity, the gap between the politicians' talk of crackdowns and managed migration -- the latest being Tony Blair's Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) -- and the reality of what can be achieved on the ground. There is a simple reason that EU leaders like to stress their determination to fight people-smugglers and 'people-traffickers' -- jargon for smugglers who lure migrants into forced labour, prostitution or other forms of exploitation.

When you catch such gangs, courts can actually lock them up. There are fewer legal levers to pull when it comes to migrants.

The new route from Africa into Tenerife is rather effective, for those who survive it.

More than 3,500 sub-Saharan Africans have arrived in the Canary Islands from Mauritania so far this year, compared with 4,700 in the whole of 2005. According to estimates from the Spanish Red Cross, a further 1,200 have drowned in the attempt.

The boatloads arriving face a maximum of 40 days' detention while Spanish officials try to establish where they are from. But most come from countries which have no repatriation agreements with Spain, such as Mali. Others simply stay silent and do not discuss their nationality. Unless they are unlucky enough to suffer deportation back to Mauritania, most have to be set free, leaving custody in legal limbo.

They need not concern Spain for long, as Miguel Becarra Domínguez, spokesman for the Canary Islands government, told me frankly when I visited to report on the crisis.

'If we let them go in Madrid, they are not going to stay in Madrid. If they're from Nigeria, they are going to go to Britain. If they are from the Congo, they will head for Belgium.' Politicians also have a more complex, rhetorical reason for vowing to fight people-smugglers. Bowing to a growing web of United Nations treaties, human rights conventions and EU law, European governments have quietly decriminalised illegal immigration. Arriving unlawfully in the EU is now largely an administrative offence dealt with outside the criminal justice system. …

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