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PRESSING ISSUES-with Robert Kyei-Gyau


As EU member states pressure Spain to tighten her borders, boatloads of illegal migrants from Africa continue to stream onto the continent's Atlantic coast. But can fortress Europe afford to shut the door to illegal immigrants from the impoverished continent? Asks Robert Kyei-Gyau.

The last six weeks has seen unprecedented efforts by African immigrants, including several Ghanaians to reach Ceuta and Melilla, two Spanish enclaves in North Africa, by scaling the barbed wire border fences. Even though the two outposts are in Morocco, they are technically part of Spain and thus in Europe.

According to press reports, as many as 700 people charged the border fences, 200 succeeded to reach Europe, as the fences collapsed while many sustained injuries in the process. More worrying to every concerned African and indeed the UN Secretary General Dr Kofi Annan is the news that the Morrocan police shot dead dozens of these migrants. Elsewhere in the Canary Islands, rescue services gave up the search for 14 immigrants whose boat sank off the coast of the Spanish islands.

Today, several thousands others (Africans), men and women, may have converged on derelict beaches in North Africa in readiness to make a deadly journey for a better life. It is a journey that will shape their future and that of their families when successful. That applies to those who will survive it. But many of them are marked for death, as they will not see the end of their journey or step on the land of their dreams, Europe. Only their mortal remains may wash ashore on Europe's Atlantic coasts and that is if they are lucky.

For those who may safely arrive, it would mark the end of a harrowing adventure that would have cost each one all the money he or she possessed and probably the savings of his relatives as well. It could have ended in death or prison. But it is also the beginning of their woes because living in Europe as an illegal immigrant, nowadays, is nearly impossible if not difficult. 

That sub Sahara Africa is the poorest region, the only economic zone with a negative GDP growth rate and the most unstable are well known facts. Gripping poverty, joblessness, lack of opportunities and unfavourable world trade terms have forced several Africans to emigrate, sometimes by dangerous means to Western countries. 

According to an Interpol press release, people smuggling has become the preferred trade of a growing number of criminal networks worldwide which show an increased sophistication with regard to moving large numbers of people at higher profits than ever before.

"Very often the travelling conditions are inhumane, the migrants overcrowd in boats or trucks and fatal accidents occur quite frequently," says Interpol.

Restrictive immigration policies of Western countries and improved technology to monitor border crossing points, according to the Paris based international police organisation, are some of the reasons why willing illegal immigrants rely increasingly on the help of organized people smugglers.

The organisation observes that, especially during summer months, Spain has to face the arrival of thousands of illegal immigrants originating from the sub-Saharan Africa. These willing immigrants undertake the hazardous trip to travel from Morocco to southern Spain by using the narrow Strait of Gibraltar where only 21 km of sea separate Europe and Africa. Many people travel in small, overcrowded boats. Thousands have already drowned in their desperate attempt try to reach Europe.

"Africans fleeing the desperation and poverty of their failed states have been washing up on Europe's coastline for more than 10 years now," says Peter Popham, a British journalist and Europe correspondent The Independent.

He opines that thousands have staggered ashore on Lampedusa, south of Sicily, in Gibraltar and Malaga or have scrambled over the triple fence of razor wire at Ceute, the Spanish enclave on the northern coast of Morocco, and every time the European authorities plug one hole, the Africans find another.

According to Mr Popham, the arrival of African youths on European shores is neither an "armada" nor an invasion as some European commentators describe it.

After witnessing the arrival of 227 sub Saharan Africans, apparently from Senegal, the Gambia, Mali and Nigeria onto Fuerteventura in Canary Islands while on holidays last February, he says: "If it is an invasion, it is one of the weak, the desperate, those for whom home has become a place of terminal hopelessness."

Summer has been identified as the peak period for the arrivals because at this time of the year the Atlantic Ocean is said to be calmer. But arrivals trickle in throughout the year and these come with terrible tragedies.
"Last year around Christmas, a boat with 10 corpses aboard, all dead of cold and thirst, and another with 13 dead among dozens who were barely alive reportedly washed ashore," says Mr Popham. 

However the exact figure of African migrants who arrive safely or die is unknown even though 7,000 illegal African immigrants are reported to have clambered ashore the Canary Island last year. 

Sorius Samura, a Sierra Leonean journalist says the Spanish authorities estimate several thousands make it to that country's shores while an equal number perish on the Atlantic.

"Laayoune in the Western Sahara is the newest launch pad and the Canaries the conduit of choice to Europe these days because the Mediterranean has got too tough. The Moroccans, Tunisians, Libyans and Italians have mounted unprecedented operations to stem the passage and inflow of migrants," he says.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Louis Rodrigues Zapatero recently held talks with Morocco over the issue of immigration. Prior to that, his socialist government launched an ambitious plan to legalise more than a million illegal immigrants. But the decision has alarmed EU governments, which favour tighter controls on immigrants particularly those coming from Sub-Saharan Africa via Morocco to Spain. 

Mr Samura whose epic 2001 documentary, "Exodus from Africa" which traced the journey of young West Africans across the Sahara and Mediterranean to seek better lives in Europe was broadcast on CNN Presents says: "Things are changing. The pressure on Spain is paying dividends as the authorities in that country have begun to crackdown on the boat people. Ships or boats caught ferrying illegal to Europe are slapped with $5000 (3,000) fines."

"But the traffickers are becoming equally sophisticated and are finding new ways as the old ways closes. Every night some hundreds cross, 40 people on boats designed for five," he says.

Another dimension to the issue is that the successfu immigrants eventually end up in countries that colonized their mother countries eventually due to linguistic problems. "For instance those from Sierra Leone and Nigeria end up in Britain while those from Mali and Senegal end up in France which together with the UK are the most favoured European destinations," said Mr Samura. 

Mr Samura says the constant rhetoric about the swelling numbers of illegal immigrants from Africa coming into Europe smacks off hypocrisy. "The truth is that they need illegal immigrants to do their dirty work, as much as illegal immigrants need this continent's unwanted jobs," he says. "Even though they work hard and pay taxes and health insurance contributions they cannot access the UK healthcare or benefits. Most of London's cleaners are illegals doing jobs British people will not do." 

However, this claim is rebuffed by Dr Kwame Nimako, a sociology professor at the University of Amsterdam who says Europe does not need illegal African immigrants despite having recruited several nurses, doctors and IT professionals from Africa and elsewhere. "There is widespread unemployment among the black community in Europe," he says.

"The simple truth is that Europe cannot stop people from coming in illegally. Concerted effort by countries such as the UK, France, Germany and the Netherlands to stop, remove or deporting illegals from Africa back to the continent has not been popular in those countries. The more people are sent out the more new migrants arrive through some other means."
Dr Nimako said African governments cannot and do not want to stop their citizens embarking on such journeys because they have themselves failed to create the necessary conditions for the youth to stay at home. "African governments just do not care about their people neither do they understand the world we are living in today."
He emphasized that African governments are there in name but in reality are run by outsiders, notably foreign investors, the World Bank, IMF and multilateral lenders. "There are no jobs, services have deteriorated over the years while living standards are worse than one can imagine. So therefore, crime will be their source of income if they choose to stay in their countries," he said.

But Dr Nimako also justified the dangerous journeys, in economics terms. "It is natural and makes economic sense for human beings to move from a region of low income to one of higher income. The movement of Mexican immigrants to America is a classical example." 

George Turkson, an officer at the Ghana High Commission in London shares Dr Nimako's earlier views. He notes that Ghana, a democratic country, could not stop its nationals travelling abroad without turning the country into an authoritarian pariah state like North Korea.

James Lorge, a research fellow at the Institute of Public Policy Research, a London based think-tank says many of the countries in that region of Africa are so poor and economically dependent on foreign loans. 
"These countries have been forced to sign up to the HIPC (Highly Indebted Poor countries) initiative. Until their economies improve substantially and job creation and availability becomes a reality, their citizens will always leave for greener pastures elsewhere and the West is the obvious destination of interest," says Mr Lorge.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), in its 2005 report published last month says perceptions that immigrants are a burden on host countries rather than a benefit are not sustained by research. "In the UK for example, a recent Home Office study calculated that in 1999-2000, migrants contributed $4 billion (about 2.5 billion) more in taxes than they received in benefits," the report says.

Michael Hughes, a Reuters journalist, says, that African youths are prepared to risk everything to come to Europe shows the level of desperation facing them in their countries.

"When they see migrants flooding their streets, Europeans feel threatened and insecure for their safety and for their jobs. And in times like these when the West is fighting terrorism orchestrated by foreigners, the case of these boat people from Africa is not helped," says Mr Hughes.

According the World Migration Report 2005, migration brings a much wider range of benefits. Remittances are an important indicator of the benefits of migration, their huge potential for supporting development and poverty reduction back home in African countries.

This is the dream Africa's boat people have when they set off across the Atlantic but will Europe answer their prayers? 


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