FOCUS: Migrants keep crossing Strait of Gibraltar despite bad weather

A radio message comes in from a Spanish maritime rescue boat to the service's command centre in the southern town of Tarifa: "34 migrants rescued".

FOCUS: Migrants keep crossing Strait of Gibraltar despite bad weather
Handwritten notes are stuck on a boat used by migrants on Los Canos de Meca beach in Barbate. Photos by Jorge Guerrero / AFP

The onset of autumn, with the cold, storms and fog, has not stopped migrants from crossing the Mediterranean from Morocco to Spain, a journey that has this year claimed the lives of hundreds of youths.

From the heights of Tarifa, veteran sailors work in shifts behind radar screens at the rescue service command centre monitoring the Strait of Gibraltar, through which 100,000 ships transit every year.

“When the weather is good we can see homes in North Africa from here,” said its head, Adolfo Serrano.

Just 14 kilometres (nine miles) separates northern Morocco from Spain's southern Andalusia region at the Strait's narrowest point.   

“But with a quickly changing sea, strong currents, fogs that can surprise you, it's a dangerous crossing,” added Serrano.   

It is especially perilous because human traffickers put migrants on packed inflatable boats or plastic canoes that can easily overturn, he said.

Video by AFP's Noemi Gragera:

'Many can't swim'

“I can't remember an autumn like this. Boats keep arriving with pregnant women, children,” said Jose Antonio Parra, a mechanic of 25 years experience with the Guardia Civil police force's maritime unit.

The 34 migrants rescued from an inflatable boat — including six females who appeared to be in their teens  — were taken to the port of Algeciras, where they were first attended to by the Red Cross before being handed to police.

Small migrant boats are hard to detect by radar. They are often only located when the migrants themselves sound the alarm by telephone.   

Rescuers did not detect the boat which sunk on November 5 during a storm off the coast of the town of Barbate, an hour's drive west of Algeciras, killing 23 young Moroccans. 

Only 21 people on board survived.   

“There was a hell of a storm. Many of them did not know how to swim,” said spokesman for the Guardia Civil in Cadiz province, Manuel Gonzalez.   

Andalusia's regional government took charge of nine minors who survived, while police jailed two passengers suspected of having steered the boat.    

The other 10 adults who were on board were ordered back to Morocco under an agreement between Madrid and Rabat.

'Toy-style boat'

Since then, more bodies have washed ashore on other beaches.   

Nine sub-Saharan African migrants drowned after spending a week adrift at sea, according to the only survivor of the ordeal, a Guinean teenager who saw his brother die, said Gonzalez.

The migrants had paid €700 ($800 dollars) each for what they had been told would be a trip on board a rigid-hulled inflatable boat with an engine but were instead forced to take a “toy-style boat” with just one oar, he added.   

Between January and December 2nd, 687 migrants died trying to enter Spain by sea, more than three times as many as last year, according to International Organization for Migration (IOM) figures.

More migrants have died trying to reach Italy and Malta this year — nearly 1,300 — but Spain has become the main entry point for migrants trying to reach Europe by sea. More than 55,000 migrants have arrived in the country so far this year.

Remains of an inflatable boat used by migrants lies on the Hierbabuena beach in Barbate

'Even the men cried'

Rescuers describe two types of migrants: Sub-Saharan African migrants, who sing when rescuers arrive to pluck them from the sea, and Moroccans who try at all costs to reach the shore without being detected because they face deportation back to Morocco if caught.

“Our boat rocked, there was so much joy,” Abou Bacari, an 18-year-old who left Ivory Coast two years ago after he lost his job at a banana plantation, told AFP in Madrid, as he recalled his rescue at sea off the Spanish coast in October.

There were 70 people on board the inflatable boat, including four children and eight women, when it departed Tangiers for Spain, he said.   

“Guineans, Malians, Ivorians… we were lost at sea for two days,” Bacari said, adding “even the men cried” when the boat developed a puncture.   

On some days — such as last weekend — as many as over 500 migrants can be brought to shore by Spain's maritime rescuers.   

“I had never before seen a boat just with 45 migrants aged around 14-15 on board. Even the one who steered it, who supposedly worked for the traffickers, was a minor,” said Parra.

Names tattooed   

It's now 30 years since the first photo of the body of a drowned migrant on a beach in Andalusia was published.   

Today rows of tombstones at Tarifa's cemetery mark where unnamed migrants are buried.

Niches reading “Migrant from Morocco” (TOP) of unidentified migrants who died trying to cross the Strait of Gibraltar at the cementery of Tarifa

“Sometimes we find migrants with their names tattooed on their arms in case they die. We are seeing a normalisation of death and that is unacceptable,” said Jose Villajos, the head of an association that helps migrants founded in Algeciras in 1991.

He accused the European Union of “using North African countries to stop migration and act a bit like Europe's police but this policy leads to even more deaths.”

“When agreements are being ironed out with African countries like Morocco, curiously, the number of migrant boats increase greatly because it is a way to put pressure on Europe,” he claimed.

Maria Jesus Herrera, the head of the IOM mission in Spain, said that while it was important to increase cooperation with the migrants' country of origin to help boost their living standards, Europe must at the same time “open regular channels of emigration, which are safe and dignified”.

By AFP's  Laurence Boutreux


How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.