Thursday, July 06, 2006

Morocco says thousands more African migrants are lurking in its woods and city slums in hopes of entering Europe

Lamine Ghanmi:

Morocco says thousands more African migrants are lurking in its woods and city slums in hopes of entering Europe via a Spanish enclave after the latest mass assault on the razor wire separating the two continents.

At least three Africans died this week when up to 70 stormed the enclave of Melilla in a bid to breach wealthy Europe's land border with the world's poorest continent.

Moroccan authorities also found the bodies of 30 migrants washed up on the Atlantic shore after a rickety boat carrying up to 70 sub Saharan migrants to Spain sank.

"There are thousands of illegal migrants scattered across Morocco," said Khalid Zerouali, the top migration official at the Interior Ministry, when asked about sub-Saharan Africans hiding in the country and hoping to cross illegally to Spain.

"It is hard to have a precise figure as the migration is dynamic and fluctuating, but the pressure of illegal migrants is still here with us," he said in an interview with Reuters.

The North African country, long a springboard for illegal migrants, hosts the first Europe-Africa conference on migration next week hoping to deter young African job-seekers from embarking on a sometimes fatal quest for a better life.

Europeans want help in managing migration by stamping out human trafficking and policing coastlines better so the right number of people arrive in Europe with the most useful skills.

Africans say the only long-term solution is to narrow a massive wealth divide by creating more jobs in the countries of origin, and are asking Europe for more development aid.

Zerouali said Morocco had deployed about 11,000 troops to shut gates and crossings onto the Atlantic and Mediterranean shorelines as well at land borders, including with Spain's Ceuta and Melilla enclaves, over the past two years.

The Moroccan crackdown had staunched the flow of illegal migrants by 65 percent in the past two years, compared with 2003 when the kingdom saw an upswell in migrant arrivals and came under pressure from Spain to stop the flow, he said.

Morocco had stepped up patrols and surveillance of its land and coast borders to try to quell more than 5,000 attempts by illegal migrants to reach Spain in the past 15 months.

"It is difficult to tell about the exact number of illegal migrants from this figure of 5,000 because many repeat the attempts," he said, adding that police also dismantled 484 illegal migrant smuggling networks in 2005 and 160 networks in the first three months of this year.

Moreover, Morocco flew back home more than 2,000 migrants to Senegal, Nigeria, Mali and elsewhere in the past 11 months.

He said cooperation with Spain and France was good but vigilance was needed "because migrant smugglers change tactics."

But a security crackdown alone would not solve the migration problem, said Zeroual and other Moroccan officials who want the Europe-Africa conference to come up with a broad strategy.

"The Europe-Africa conference on migration is a response to the necessity and urgency of acting against illegal migration. We look for tangible and practical actions from the conference which will go beyond more security against migration," said the conference's top organiser, Moroccan diplomat Youssef Lemarani.

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