Monday, September 11, 2006

Europe has taken its fight to control the boatloads of African immigrants setting off for the Canary Islands to the coasts of western Africa

Dominic Bailey:

Patrol boats, planes and helicopters from Spain, Italy, Portugal and Finland are operating off the shores of Mauritania, Senegal and Cape Verde in a bid to stop the immigration at source.

Operation Hera II is the first of its kind for the European agency Frontex, led by the Spanish Guardia Civil [Civil Guard].

Guardia Civil Commander Eduardo Lobo, at the multinational Frontex HQ in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, says that in the three months that they have been operating off Mauritania, boats containing a total of 1,243 people have been intercepted and returned to shore.

"That's 1,243 who have not got to the Canaries," he says. "It is a preventative operation. If we locate and identify any illegal boat within 24 miles of the coast they are immediately returned."

If found outside that zone, the boats are escorted the extra 2,300km or so to the Canary Islands.

The Senegalese government's delay in granting permission for the operation to start along its coast has contributed in part to the fact that thousands are continuing to make the treacherous journey.

Operation Hera II has not been without its teething problems.

Commander Lobo says organising the authorisation, personnel and infrastructure for the crews has been time consuming and expensive. The European boats have African personnel on board and local vessels have Europeans.

"The Frontex members provide the platform and support them but they are the authority for intercepting and returning the boats," he says. "Little by little we are resolving the problems."

There have been rumours and speculation that the cayucos boats whose passengers arrive in a relatively good state of health after between eight to 10 days at sea have had help from bigger vessels - either towing or dropping them off within striking distance.

The Guardia Civil reject this theory.

"I do not believe there is anyone else helping the boats - with everything we have in the area we have not detected any bigger boat, only the cayucos and they are managing to reach the Canaries by themselves," says Commander Lobo.

Tenerife has seen more than 16,404 people arrive in more than 239 cayucos since 1 January. The cayucos are Senegalese fishing boats - sometimes with a frame for tarpaulin - and carry anything between 70 and 150 people crammed side by side.

But many of the cayucos are well equipped.

Some have two or three 40 horsepower engines and have barrels of diesel loaded below the makeshift wooden decks.

Food and water appears to be minimal, but among the putrid remnants left behind when the passengers are taken ashore are life jackets, gas cookers, pots and evidence of rice, onions and biscuits.

Red Cross emergency co-ordinator Austin Wainwright, based in Los Cristianos, Tenerife, says there are usually at least two, but often four or five, on board who have been taught how to navigate the boats.

"They also usually have hand-held GPS systems," he says. "But it depends on the sea conditions, how many days they have spent at sea etc. We treat some for dehydration, salt burns but others are OK.

"We have had about nine arrive dead in the boats, but how many have been lost at sea is anyone's guess. Unofficially I'd say about 1,000-2,000 this year."

International co-operation is also underway on the Canary Islands themselves in the form of Frontex's Hera I operation, led by the Spanish National Police.

Ten experts from Italy, France, Germany and Portugal are working in the islands' overstretched detention centres trying to identify the immigrants.

The Senegalese Interior Ministry says hundreds of illegal immigrants from Senegal will be repatriated as a result of this operation.

Now that the Senegalese part of Operation Hera II is also underway, Commander Lobo is sure it will help curb the flow of cayucos.

But he says that with the situation in Africa as it is, people will try to find other means. "Perhaps they will try bigger boats that can make longer journeys," he says.

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