Illegal Immigration More Africans Risking Deadly Passage to Europe

More refugees from Africa successfully made their way to Spain's Canary Islands in August than during all of 2005. Thousands are believed to have died making the journey and Europe is expanding its efforts to combat illegal immigration.

Refugees off the coast of Gran Canaria island, in Spain's Canary Islands

Refugees off the coast of Gran Canaria island, in Spain's Canary Islands

Europeans can fly to the Canary Islands or southern Italy on package holiday deals for as little as a fewl hundred euros. Human traffickers also make similar deals available to illegal African immigrants seeking a better life in the European Union. For €600 ($768), a smuggler will take you to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla along Morocco's coast. And for €700, they'll take you as far as Spain's Canary Islands. Those wanting to go to highly desirable Italy can make the journey from West Africa through Libya and then across the Mediterranean for a steep €2,000. Unfortunately, many never arrive at their destination after drowning en route during the dangerous trip.

Earlier this month, 50 people died when their boat failed to complete the journey across the Mediterranean to the Italian island of Lampedusa. In Spain, 490 deaths have been confirmed since the beginning of the year -- a figure that only represents bodies that have been pulled out of the water. The Red Cross and its Muslim sister organization, the Red Crescent, estimate there have been as many as 3,000 deaths.

Still, a startling number of immigrants have made it to Europe this year -- in Lampedusa alone, 10,414 refugees from Africa have landed during the first six months of 2006. More than 18,000 refugees -- mostly Africans not carrying any documents -- have arrived at the Canary Islands, three times the number for the previous year. Of that number, 5,000 arrived in August alone according to the regional government. The Canary Islands are a favored destination for the migrants because they are located only 112 kilometers from the African coastline.

With the growing influx of illegal immigrants, not to mention the perils these people face on the high seas, the European Union's border security authority, Frontex, said in May it would send surveillance ships and aircraft to patrol the coast of West Africa. Now, Italy, Portugal and Finland are expected to join Spain in efforts to curb the fatal migration trend. Spain's Guardia Civil currently conducts joint patrols with Mauritanian gendarmes. And the Spanish have reached a similar cooperative agreement with Senegal. Although the West African country is located 1,400 kilometers away from the Canaries, it has become a popular point of departure for migrants because of an increase in coastal patrols from Morocco.

Earlier this week, Spain requested additional aid from the European Union to help stop the flow of migrants. But critics note that the country's liberal migration laws make it difficult to turn people back to Africa. Madrid requires that immigrants be released after 40 days if they haven't been deported. However, it is politically difficult for Spain to deport immigrants who have arrived without papers or any proof of their country of origin.

Spanish refugee camps on the Canary Islands have long been overflowing and the government is now taking every step possible to stop the influx. In early September, Spanish authorities are expected to discuss the best way to bring the immigrants to the Iberian peninsula. Of particular concern is the fate of 700 children who are living in the camps on the islands.



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