Tourists who came to the Canary Islands for some winter sunshine watched bemused from a beachside bar as Spanish coastguards brought the latest arrivals onshore.
Shivering and wrapped in foil to keep them warm, the illegal immigrants from Africa just looked glad to be alive as they huddled in the harbour at Fuerteventura.
The arrival of these and at least 1,000 others last week, across a perilous 600 miles (970km) of Atlantic Ocean, has provoked a crisis for the Spanish Government and concern throughout Europe that another breach has opened for those seeking to enter the continent illegally.
The Canary Islands are the new favourite destination for thousands of Africans hoping to make a new life in Europe. This year there has been a 200 per cent rise in the number of immigrants trying their luck in small boats, some even in fibreglass kayaks, that set out from Mauritania.
More than 3,500 have been detained, but many more have landed on deserted beaches, or, like 25 found last week, perished at sea.
Up to 30,000 sub-Saharan Africans are now thought to have gathered in the port of Nouadhibou, in the north of Mauritania, waiting for a passage.
Amid mounting domestic political pressure, María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister, pledged at the weekend not to allow the Canaries to become a transit camp for illegal immigrants headed for Europe. She announced the immediate repatriation of 170 illegal immigrants to Mauritania and pledged that more would follow “as soon as possible”.
Spain and Mauritania are to launch more patrols off Mauritania after Spanish diplomats flew to the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, for emergency talks. Two more patrols and 29 extra coastguard officers will be moved to the islands.
Aid agencies and local government, whose resources have already been stretched to breaking point, are to receive €7.5 million (£5.2 million).
Holding camps in the Canary Islands have become overrun and army barracks are being used as temporary shelters for more than 2,000 immigrants until their fate is settled.
Aid agencies are asking local people to donate clothes and mattresses. Madrid will send 3,500 mattresses.
One government official on the Canary Islands said: “We have never seen anything like this.” Madrid will also help to set up refugee camps in Mauritania, where many of those deported from Spain will end up.
Bernando León, Spain’s Deputy Foreign Minister, called for international help with a crisis that Spain believes has implications beyond its own shores. He said: “This is an international problem and it is also necessary that the European Union and Africa commit themselves to confronting it.”
The emergency has provoked recriminations between the Canary Islands and Madrid. Paulino Rivero, from the Coalición Canaria party, accused the Government of “complacency and permissiveness” in failing to act earlier.
The Canary Islands has long been the target for illegal immigrants from Morocco, but the gangs of human traffickers changed the route after Madrid and Rabat toughened border controls after a mass influx of immigrants to Spain’s two North African enclaves in Melilla and Ceuta last year. Six migrants trying to scale barriers were shot by police.
Poor, desperate, exploited to the end
MAURITANIANS are growing rich from the lucractive trade in hope.
Nouadhibou, a once quiet, pretty port in the north of the country that attracted local tourism, has become the centre of a human trafficking for those seeking a new life in Spain then, possibly, more distant parts of Europe.
Locals sell life-jackets at €200 (£138) on the beach, all of which have washed up after previous owners drowned. They advertise them with the macabre sign “One previous owner”. Outboard motors come at €2,000 a time—about 20 times the average monthly income in Mauritania—and comparable with European prices.
Migrants can just reach the Canaries from the port and a security crackdown in Morocco has made it too difficult to work from nearer shores.
The refugees have set up shanty towns, ready to make the journey at any time.
Washed ashore are the reminders of the dangers—shoes, clothes, or even bodies of those who failed to make it.
Despite the huge risks and the mounting death toll—more than 1,000 have drowned since November—the hopefuls are not put off.
One is Etienne, 22, from Senegal, who has been deported three times but is determined to try again. “To return to Senegal would be a dishonour,” he told the Spanish daily El País.
“I must make it, there is nothing for me in my own country.”
Camped in a wooden hut on the beach at Nouadhibou, he works on a farm, saving everything he earns to pay the mafias who will overcharge him for a slim chance to change his life. Etienne has his bag packed under his bed as the call could come at any time to make a swift exit to join others bound for Spain.
Olga Martín, of the Spanish branch of the Red Cross, which has a camp in the port, said: “Every two or three days the Mauritanian Government are taking more migrants back towards the Senegalese border to deport them, but they can hardly cope with the numbers.”
Meanwhile, they are held in shabby holding camps, sleeping on floors and surviving on Red Cross rations.