EU sparkles across sea for clandestine Africans

Hundreds of pairs of eyes stare out from the northernmost point in Africa across a thin stretch of deadly choppy water, toward a coastline that sketches out the promise of a mythic land of plenty.

The narrow Gibraltar Strait—along with scores of police, governments and physical dangers—is all that separates thousands of African would-be immigrants from Spain and, beyond, the rest of Europe.

Hamid (17) has waited in the Tangiers port for over a month. “I managed to get on a ferry once, but I got caught in Algesiras,” in the south of Spain, he said.

The youngest of six from a Marrakesh family, Hamid has joined the ranks of thousands from Morocco, Mauritania, and sub-Saharan Africa waiting for a chance to cross.

They spread out across 50 kilometres of coastline and mass in Tangiers, a major commercial crossing point into Europe.

While access to the port is theoretically limited to employees with passes and paying passengers, it is in fact a principal conduit for clandestine travellers, who quickly find hideaway nooks in the truck-loading zone and labyrinth of containers piled on docks.

Yassine, a friend of Hamid’s, uses an emptied container in the port for a shelter. “I’m ready to head out to any country to do any kind of work,” the 18-year-old from Casablanca said.
Yassine, who manages only a few French words as his only foreign language, has no professional skills, but said he hopes to work “in agriculture or construction” in Europe.

Many other African youth show up in the port seeking passage with identical itineraries and hopes: on the run from unemployment and hardship in Africa, they seek work and a better life in Europe.

The thorny issue of clandestine passage is a flashpoint in western Europe, where extremist anti-immigration parties have gained momentum in recent elections.

On Thursday, a Rome summit brings together EU members and candidate countries to discuss immigration and asylum policy.

While diplomats prepare to argue the details of greater border controls, hundreds lie in wait in Tangiers for the next occasion to board a ship headed for Spain or to slip aboard a truck, inside a container or beneath its axles.

All those waiting in the port are familiar with stories of successful “passage,” but also with those of failure.

Spanish authorities turned back some 21 000 Moroccans last year alone. And scores have died or been injured while risking the perilous journey across the strait in fishing boats and rubber dinghies.

The port is currently empty of sub-Saharan Africans and Mauritanians, the target of recent measures enacted by Moroccan authorities to curb illegal transit through their country.

But the limited efficiency of these measures has led to growing friction between Morocco and Spain, who hold each other responsible for the problem. What can be easily seen at the Tangiers port is only a fraction of a larger and lucrative business of illegal trafficking.

According to many accounts, it begins in large Moroccan cities, particularly Rabat and Casablanca, among shipping companies whose vehicles cross the strait from Tangiers. Smugglers working for the companies receive payment to “close their eyes” at loading points so that passengers can hide among the cargo. The clandestine travellers board at their risk. And non-Moroccans, often illegally inside Morocco, risk the most.

They depend heavily upon the “emigration mafia” who offer passage from launching points nearby. Roughly 10 000 dirhams (1 000 euros, $900) will buy a transit from one of the many bays along the cliff-lined coast between Tangiers and Ceuta.

Far from the reach of the police, a Zodiac inflatable boat can be pulled out of a truck, blown up, and sent into the waters within minutes.

Other types of boats, including the famous “pateras” responsible for many drownings, are also available to eager travellers.

In their quest, these would-be immigrants are prepared to board most anything that will ferry them from their current waystation toward their future, hidden beyond the rough watery divide. - AFP

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