/ 7 June 2002

A new route to asylum

The last time Mercy Stewin saw her native Africa she was standing knee-deep in water, keeping herself steady against the waves as they rolled up the beach at Foum el Oued, where the Sahara desert meets the ocean.

Here, not far from the beachfront Nagjir hotel and the mouth of the dried-out Sakia el Hamra river, she levered herself over the side of a small, green fishing boat with Arabic lettering painted on the bow.

Nineteen other people from all over Africa were packed into the boat. A young Moroccan fixed a small outboard motor to the stern, settled his human cargo evenly, jerked the engine into life and, taking out a rudimentary compass, set off on a course just west of north.

For Stewin, aged 25 and eight months pregnant, it was the final stage in a 14-month journey from Nigeria. At nightfall the next day she and her companions picked out a pinprick of light in the distance. Stewin was looking at the Entallada lighthouse on Fuerteventura, the nearest of Spain’s Canary Islands to Africa, and the “welcome” sign on what is now the main illegal immigrant route into Europe from Africa.

A few hours later a Spanish civil guard patrol boat intercepted them. As it came alongside, the immigrants scrambled aboard and were delivered on to European soil at the port of Gran Tarajal. Two days later Stewin’s son was born. She called him Blessed.

The Canaries route highlights the shifting nature of illegal immigration by Africans who, blocked from crossing the Mediterranean from northern Morocco, turn to new, risky ways to get through Europe’s frontiers.

An investigation into the route followed by Stewin and thousands of other sub-Saharan immigrants to Fuerteventura and neighbouring Lanzarote has revealed that the long, arduous journey across Africa leads to a series of secret, movable desert camps near Laayoune, capital of the disputed Western Sahara.

Last weekend, after a week of heavy seas, hundreds of sub-Saharan Africans were waiting in these tented camps for the weather to change. Thousands more were at staging posts along a roundabout route via Niger, Algeria and northern Morocco. As soon as the weather changed, Spanish police were expecting a fresh wave of boats. Police fear they will receive up to 8 000 illegal immigrants this year. At current growth rates, that figure would double or treble in 2003.

All the immigrants spoken to paid for their trips in Rabat, the Moroccan capital. There, a shifting population of thousands of sub-Saharan Africans work or steal to raise the $450 price for the trip to Fuerteventura.

They are driven 1400km south in fleets of Land Rovers, avoiding police. The trip usually ends short of Laayoune itself. A local Saharawi guide drives them into the sand dunes that stretch towards the sea. This is where the temporary camps are set up.

The migrants hate these tented camps, where they are kept as virtual prisoners for up to three weeks. “We are people of the jungle, not of the desert,” said Fernand Blaise, from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Even the beach can be a shock. “Some turned back when they saw it. The sea was too frightening,” said Moise Obama (41), a mechanic from the Cameroon capital, Yaounde, who made the trip in March. Dozens have died on the route.

“The last ones to die in Lanzarote were only three metres away from the beach. But most can’t swim. Finding dead bodies is the worst bit of this job,” said Lieutenant Francisco Alba, head of the small civil guard detachment in Fuerteventura.

Alba and his men catch about 90% of those who arrive. Most spend 40 days at a makeshift detention camp. They are then put on a ferry to Las Palmas, capital of Gran Canaria, where they are fed by the Red Cross, sleep in parks and eventually raise money to get to mainland Europe.

The two-year prison sentences handed down to the Moroccans who pilot the boats has done nothing to slow the growth of this route, with the financial benefits outweighing the risks.

Abdel-Latif Guerraoui, the Moroccan governor of Western Sahara, shrugs his shoulders. His police force has half a dozen Land Rovers and two dilapidated spotter planes to patrol not just immigration but fishing and smuggling along a 400km coastline around Laayoune. The police recently expelled 300 immigrants, and 14 traffickers were jailed for up to 10 years. But he has other things to worry about — poverty being his main concern.

Many of those expelled by his police will find a way back to Laayoune and try again. For Stewin the drama of taking the new illegal migrant route into Europe is over. Blessed, born on Spanish soil, is her passport to legal residency. “All I want to do is work,” she said.