REPORTER: Thom Cookes
Tenerife, in the Canary Islands.
The beaches here have long been a playground for Western tourists seeking a winter escape. Los Cristianos, the island’s southern port. British tourists in particular have made this resort town their own. But a different kind of visitor has begun to arrive in Los Cristianos.
Thousands of illegal migrants are flooding in from Africa to look for work. An armada of these tiny open boats is braving the 6-day ocean crossing from West Africa. Sometimes over 100 people are crammed into each one. On just this one day, four separate boats have turned up, and the foreign tourists here are clearly stunned.
TOURIST: We saw them tow them in. We saw them tow them in.
REPORTER: Were you a bit surprised to see them turn up during your holiday?
TOURIST: Yes, we were. Yes. We really don’t understand it all. It shouldn’t be done, though, should it, really?
REPORTER: Have you seen the size of the boat that they arrived in?
TOURIST: Yeah, we saw that. Yes, we have, yes. How many were there? Do you know?
REPORTER: About 80, apparently.
TOURIST: 80?! In the one boat? We were on our balcony when we saw them come in. Yes, yes. We looked through the binoculars.
REPORTER: Why do you think they’ve come?
TOURIST: They must think it is better here than it is where they’ve come from, I suppose.
These men have risked their lives to reach the Canary Islands because this is Spanish territory, the southernmost border of the European Union. The illegal migration route to Europe, via Morocco and the Mediterranean, is now heavily patrolled. But as one route is shut down, another opens up, and the 1,400km voyage from Senegal to the Canaries is now the favoured way to go.
A Red Crescent official in West Africa has estimated that up to 40% of these boats don’t make it, sinking without trace in the Atlantic swells.
After the illegal migrants are towed in to the harbour by the Spanish Coast Guard, they’re treated by the Red Cross. Their boats are then emptied and eventually broken up, as local residents look on.
LOCAL RESIDENT, (Translation): It takes courage to make an 11-day journey with 80 people in a boat like this. They must be desperate. Yes. They must. You need courage. Lots of it. Imagine this on the open ocean. A journey in this… Poor people.
So far this year, over 25,000 illegal immigrants have arrived here, five times the total number for last year, and the local authorities have been stretched to breaking point. Salvador Mendez is the harbour master at Los Cristianos.
SALVADOR MENDEZ, HARBOUR MASTER (Translation): The total number of immigrants who landed this morning is 300. A major search operation has been put in place as there are indications that several more boats could be approaching.
The Coast Guard and Red Cross are under great pressure, but the compassion they show the new arrivals is obvious. Many of these West African men are suffering from exposure and dehydration. And to the untrained eye, it appears that Thierry, a French-speaking Red Cross worker, is just horsing around with them, gaining their trust, but he’s very cleverly picking out those who need further medical help. Those under 18 have their birth dates marked on a piece of tape around their arms. They’re eventually separated from the other men. Under Spanish law, they are now wards of the state, and they can’t be sent back home against their will. Oswaldo Lemus is the head of the Red Cross emergency response team.
OSWALDO LEMUS, RED CROSS (Translation): So far today we’ve had 293 arrivals. 18 of them are probably minors and 2 are women. Several have needed attention from the Red Cross doctors and nurses for dehydration, sunburn and serious wounds.
While I am in the Canary Islands, I’m not allowed to talk to the new arrivals, or hear what they’ve been through but Oswaldo has helped to unload close to 200 of these boats, and knows exactly how they’re feeling.
OSWALDO LEMUS (Translation): They’ve spent several days on the high seas in cold temperatures, rough seas, darkness and silence, and when they land they get the feeling that they’ve made it, that it’s over. It’s very stressful.
Under Spain’s liberal immigration laws, the longest these men can be held is 40 days. If their nationality is established inside that time, they can be deported home. If not – and most migrants make sure they have no identification with them – they are then released into the community, usually on the Spanish mainland. After medical checks, these arrivals are bussed to the local police station to be officially interviewed. According to Salvador Mendez, it’s clear why they are risking their lives.
SALVADOR MENDEZ (Translation): It’s obvious why they’re coming. The gap in the standard of living between the African countries and the Canaries and Europe is so great, there’s so much difference, that people don’t hesitate to look for a way out and search for a better place.
It’s the next morning, and Red Cross workers have been tipped off that more boats are due.
REPORTER: When did you find out?
OSWALDO LEMUS (Translation): 5:00 in the morning.
But this time, the illegal migrant boat sank before it could be towed in, and they’ve been rescued by the Coast Guard.
SALVADOR MENDEZ (Translation): Last night at approximately 3am, the Punta Salinas coastal patrol boat rescued a group of 97 immigrants. Their boat was in really bad condition. Soon after the immigrants were hauled aboard, the boat, which had been leaking, sank completely.
According to Salvador, the current rate of arrivals is not sustainable.
SALVADOR MENDEZ (Translation): The people from the Canaries are all seriously worried. The Canary Islands are a very small territory and being a small territory, it’s not easy to absorb thousands, waves of immigrants landing here. And people are really worried about the future. We don’t know when it will stop. 25,000 have landed so far. How many more will come? 50,000? 100,000? 500,000?
While it’s easy to see the illegal migrants arriving, it’s far harder to see where they end up afterwards. This is the closest I could get with a camera to the police station in Los Cristianos. The cells are overflowing, and these large tents have been set up in the grounds outside. There are over 1,500 men crammed in here, and the police union has complained about overcrowding and health risks.
After three days, illegal migrants are moved to detention camps that have been set up right across the Canaries. This one, high up on the neighbouring island of La Gomera, is in a disused restaurant, far from public view. And as the centres fill up, there’s increasing pressure on Spain to toughen up its immigration laws.
Jose Miguel Ruano is the Security and Justice advisor to the Canary Islands regional government.
JOSE MIGUEL RUANO, SECURITY AND JUSTICE ADVISOR (Translation): At the moment, we in the autonomous government of the Canary Islands believe this legislation is lenient and that certain points should be rectified. The immigrant detention period should be extended to allow repatriation when there are arrivals en masse.
But according to Salvador Mendez, it’s the conditions back in Senegal that are behind the current wave of illegal migration.
SALVADOR MENDEZ (Translation): For the last two years, Senegal has been in a serious economic crisis. They used to have a strong, reasonably well-managed fishing industry, but prices have dropped drastically and the whole fishing sector along the coast of Senegal was thrown into serious crisis.
These are the beaches at Dakar, the capital of Senegal. In the Canaries, the Spanish police wouldn’t let me talk to the illegal immigrants I’d filmed arriving, so I’ve come here to find out for myself why, and how people are making the trip. Much of the illegal traffic is run by local fishermen. And even though it’s against the law, it’s not hard to find someone to explain how it works. Pape, a boat-owner and fisherman, is happy to oblige.
PAPE, FISHERMAN (Translation): I can take people who want to leave. I give them my phone number, they give me theirs. You understand? If we get a number of “¦the number of people the boat can take, for instance, 100 people. Do you understand? We agree to meet somewhere, get on the boat and go. It’s simple.
Departures from Senegal have become so frequent that it’s become a hub for migrants right across West and Central Africa. Many have never even seen the ocean before, and don’t understand the risks.
PAPE (Translation): But those who come from the bush… Many lost their lives at sea. On the whole, the people who died were people who…who took a boat for the first time.
Along with Claire Soares, who’s translating for me, I meet Alkally Saar. His house is just behind the beach. He made the trip to the Canaries and was deported back here just last week.
ALKALLY SAAR (Translation): I’ve missed my big chance. I’m ashamed to face my family. I can’t even tell you how bad I feel. I feel shame. In front of my family, my father. My father is an old man. My mother is a very brave woman, very courageous. They sold everything to help the family. That’s why I wanted to go to Spain.
CLAIRE SOARES, TRANSLATOR (Translation): So your mother sold all her things? What did she sell?
ALKALLY SAAR (Translation): Jewels. All that stuff. What I had, what my father had. We sold everything. I paid 400,000.
CLAIRE SOARES, (Translation): Why did your parents agree to do that? Do they expect you to be the breadwinner?
ALKALLY SAAR (Translation): Here in Senegal, young people have no future. For people or young people? That’s why. There’s no future. There’s no work for the young. That’s why.
All along the coast of Senegal, the impact of migration has been massive. Whether illegal migrants survive the trip or not, their loss is felt by those left behind. Seyou N’Diaye, a local fisherman, is concerned for the future of his community.
SEYOU N’DIAYE (Translation): Immigration affects the village in a major way. We’ve lost many of our children. We’ve lost more than 200 in our village. Our brothers too, even our sisters. We’ve lost a few sisters. It’s because life in the village is very hard. Life in Senegal is very hard because there’s no work.
Seyou’s own brother left for the Canary Islands but died on the voyage.
SEYOU N’DIAYE (Translation): He left six months ago in a boat and he died on that boat. He died on that boat. He died at sea.
CLAIRE SOARES, TRANSLATOR (Translation): How did you find out?
SEYOU N’DIAYE (Translation): Others who left with him called us to tell us.
CLAIRE SOARES, TRANSLATOR (Translation):
How did you find out?
SEYOU N’DIAYE (Translation): Others who left with him called us to tell us.
CLAIRE SOARES, TRANSLATOR (Translation): What did the other passengers do with your brother, did they throw his body overboard?
SEYOU N’DIAYE (Translation): They threw him overboard. When you die, they throw you overboard and they sail on.
The high death rate from the voyage to Spain has become part of popular culture in Senegal. This mural is in downtown Dakar, just next to the university. It means ‘Barcelona or the afterlife’. Bemba Toure, who painted the mural, explains his work.
BEMBA TOURE, PAINTER (Translation): Over there is Barcelona. That’s where people want to go to find a better life. This is what they use to get there. These boats. See? Tekki means “to succeed”. But there’s a question mark. The question mark indicates people are asking themselves, “Once they reach Barcelona will they succeed or not?” Barsakh is the afterlife. Here you have those who didn’t succeed. They didn’t make it. You can see their bodies. This guy here is drowning and so is this one.
Awadi is one of the most popular hip-hop musicians and record producers in Senegal. His latest single is all about the plague of illegal migration.
AWADI, MUSICIAN (Translation): That’s why I decided to flee, That’s why I break myself in dugout I swear it I can’t stay here one more second. It is better to die than to live in such conditions, in this hell…
We come to south Senegal because there was a big crisis, all these kids running away from the country in little boats. It is really dangerous.
REPORTER: Why are they going? Why are they leaving Senegal?
AWADI: They are leaving Senegal because they are disappointed. There were a lot of promises but none of them were fulfilled.
REPORTER: Promises about what?
AWADI: Promises about job, about, you know, about better conditions, about employment, you know, better living conditions, basically.
Almost everyone we spoke to in these coastal villages near Dakar had a story about missing boats, drownings and deaths from dehydration. But it doesn’t seem to stop the demand for places on the boats.
ALPHA DIENG (Translation): Two boats left from here. We were told they carried 120 people. 120 people from whom there’s still no news.
CLAIRE SOARES, TRANSLATOR (Translation): And yet the boats continue to leave?
ALPHA DIENG (Translation): Yes, the boats continue to leave. Boats are leaving for Mauritania. Boats are preparing to leave at this very moment. For us, it’s really… It’s really very sad.
LAURENT DE BOECK, INTERNATIONAL ORGANISATION FOR MIGRATION: The people leaving know they may die, they know people who have died, they know people who didn’t succeed who saw people dying. coming back to the village saying so When you talk to the mothers they know they may have their son die, but they still do it. It might be considered as irrational action, and it’s quite difficult to dissuade people. The only way is not to talk about only the negative aspects, but to come with positive approaches and promoting legal migration, and saying – migrating, you can but don’t do it that way because there you will die.
These women have formed an association to raise funds by making and selling couscous. The husband or son of each one has died through illegal migration, and so they’ve all lost their main source of family income. Yayi Diouf, who formed the association, told us how she’d heard about the death of her son
YAYI DIOUF (Translation): They’d left in two boats. When they reached the high seas, people in the other boat saw my son’s boat taking water. They said, “We’re near the Canary Islands, wait here. Once we get to the Canaries, we’ll send for help.” But there was a storm, his boat sank and everybody drowned.
We asked Yayi how many people were in her association.
YAYI DIOUF (Translation): 375 members.
CLAIRE SOARES (Translation): 375? And everyone has lost someone?
YAYI DIOUF (Translation): Yes, everyone.
CLAIRE SOARES (Translation): And you’re all from this village?
YAYI DIOUF (Translation): Yes.
This village used to survive on the income from fishing, and it was the men who went to sea. Now that so many young men have been lost, the future of the entire community is under threat. The incentive of incomes in Europe 10-50 times those available here is impossible to ignore. Those trying to manage the problem in Africa fear it could get dramatically worse.
LAURENT DE BOECK: If the word spreads in Western Africa, or even Central Africa, that actually they can all go to Spain via the Canary Islands or whatever, you may empty Africa easily, and that’s dangerous. You have also to think about emptying a country of its youth, which should be the future of the country.
ALKALLY SARR(Translation): I will try again. For as long as I live, I will try again. For my family’s sake, not for me. I don’t matter.