Global Policy Forum

Immigrants Open New Path to Europe


By Caroline Brothers

International Herald Tribune
February 15, 2007

As the currents begin to shift and the weather improves, the first patched-up fishing boats crowded with Africans have resumed their attempts to cross from West Africa to the Canary Islands of Spain. But the Africans are not the only migrants risking this route now. Asians are joining in. One rusting fishing trawler stranded in Mauritania is notable not only for its huge contingent of passengers — nearly 400 — but also for the distances they came. Most were from a continent away, places like Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and possibly India or Pakistan.

"A new route has opened up," said Antonio Mazzitelli, the representative for the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime, in Dakar, Senegal. "More and more, West Africa is the hub for immigrants from other regions of the world, and especially Southeast Asians. While some Asians long strived to get into Europe by land routes, there is agreement now that they are favoring the much longer and more dangerous route from West Africa by the sea.

According to authorities who have questioned passengers, the Marine I stranded in Mauritania was in some ways typical. It probably set off either from the troubled West African state of Guinea or from Ivory Coast early in December, probably destined for the Canary Islands. Having engine trouble in international waters on Feb. 2, the Italian-built prawn trawler sent a distress signal and drifted for about 10 days while Spain and Mauritania wrangled about what to do. Eventually Mauritania agreed to let the migrants land and Spain agreed to manage their immediate repatriation. But two things stood out: the large number of migrants, 369, and the fact that most were not African.

The migrants usually hide their identities and nationalities in the hope of claiming refugee statues. In the case of the Marine I, international authorities quickly concluded that most of the passengers — some of whom by the end of the trip were ill with fever, vomiting, dizziness or diarrhea — were Asian, based on appearance or language but not documents.

The group — all men, 23 to 43 — disembarked in groups of 15. India and Pakistan were asked to send representatives to the warehouse converted into a shelter by the Spanish Red Cross. Spain's plans to immediately repatriate roughly 300 migrants to India have fallen apart. As most lack passports and are believed to be concealing their nationality, India does not feel obliged to take them. Nor does Mauritania feel obliged to keep them, leaving the migrants in limbo.

For Spain, an operation that was meant to last four hours has now entered its fourth day. Spain sent planes to return the men to their homes, and that is when things hit a diplomatic roadblock. Spain did manage to send off 70 migrants on Wednesday two aircraft. One group of 35, going to the Canary Islands, consisted of 22 people from Myanmar, 3 from Afghanistan and 10 Sri Lankans, according to the authorities. Another plane with Africans was aiming for the ship's last port of call, Conakry, the capital of Guinea, but unrest there obliged it to land in the Cape Verde islands instead.

Michael Tschanz, the head of the Mauritanian office of the International Organization for Migration, said in Nouadhibou that the immigrants were claiming that the agents for the trip had kept their passports and that they were given common names, thwarting efforts by Indian authorities to track them in their passport database.

"Because they are hiding their identity, it is difficult for the Indian government to say they are Indian citizens," he said. "They have been told by the smugglers that that would be the best strategy so that the investment made by their family and friends is not lost." Claims that some of them had come from the disputed region of Kashmir were not convincing, he added, as many spoke Punjabi. Urdu is more widely spoken in Kashmir.

The Marine I is the fourth vessel carrying a majority of South Asians known to have attempted the perilous crossing from West Africa in the past half year or so. It is also the biggest. On Jan. 12, a boat called the Taobi Stara arrived in the Canary Islands carrying 166 immigrants, roughly 151 of them believed to be from Pakistan. One landed in the Canary island of Tenerife in September with about 160 people, including 137 South Asians, on board. A third boat, with 226 people, mostly Pakistanis, arrived directly in Spain's Mediterranean port of Cadiz in July.

Other South Asians are being caught before reaching the sea. Senegalese police halted 105 Pakistanis in two groups in and outside of Dakar in September, and Guinea Bissau detained 100 Pakistanis in October, according to local news reports at the time. Police sources said a group of Indians was intercepted in Niger on its way to Senegal last year.

But the saga of the Marine I offers the boldest evidence yet that South Asians are joining the 31,000 Africans who risked their lives last year along the newest route into Europe. Many die, are turned back or are held in camps for questioning, for the few who succeed.

That Pakistanis have been attempting to reach Europe via Africa is no secret to the Pakistani authorities. Tariq Pavez, director general of the Federal Investigation Agency in Islamabad, said in an interview this week that the African route was emerging as "a problem area."

"This is now our main headache: How to disrupt the African route," Pavez said, adding that many Pakistanis travel on valid documents to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and then aim for African countries like Senegal and Mauritania, where they can get visas on arrival. "Then they start moving to different countries, especially Spain and Morocco." The documents are discarded, as the migrants gamble that they cannot then be sent back home, without realizing the perils of being stateless.

The International Organization for Migration says that people from South Asia have crossed Africa before to get to Europe, usually treking across the Sahara to the two Spanish enclaves in Morocco, Melilla and Ceuta. The organization should know. Over the past two years it has rescued 300 South Asians from the desert, including 30 Indians and Bangladeshis abandoned in the Sahara in May. Philippe Chauzy, the organization's spokesman in Geneva, said that group was not heading north to Melilla. "They were going to go west, to the coast."

Officials like Mazzitelli, of the UN office in Senegal, say that while African immigrants cross thousands of miles of ocean in fiberglass "cayucos," or fishing boats, crammed with 50 to 80 passengers, South Asians are leaving in groups of at least 100, in much bigger vessels, like the barely seaworthy Marine I. Similar rusting hulks can be found abandoned all along the West African coast, he said, and can be refurbished for minimal cost. He is concerned that more Africans are taking the bigger and hazardous vessels used by the Asians.

Mazzitelli says that unlike African immigrants, who can take several years to work their way to the coast and earn the roughly €1,000, or $1,300, it costs for a seat in a crumbling cayuco to the Canary Islands, most South Asians have come to Africa by air. Those awaiting their fate in the warehouse at Nouadhibou paid €6,000 to €10,000 each for their trip to "Destination Europe," Tschanz said.

"The immigrants aren't told anything, they pay to come to Europe and they are unaware of the conditions," said Vijaya Souri, who works for the International Organization for Migration in Mauritania. "They didn't even know they were paying their way through Africa, and some said that if they had known, they wouldn't have chosen to come."

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