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Africa: Migration and Rights

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Sep 16, 2006 (060916)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

Chartered planes started flying illegal African immigrants back from Spain to Senegal last week, resuming a repatriation program aimed at stemming the flow of immigrants to this southern European country. But judging by experience, the return is unlikely to stop thousands of others from risking their lives in small boats to reach the Canary Islands from the West African coast, or finding other perilous ways of reaching the European continent.

More than 20,000 African immigrants have been intercepted this year in Spain's Canary Islands, including 6,000 in August alone. Rough estimates are that at least 1,000 a year are lost at sea attempting the perilous voyage in small boats. This flow is paralleled by Africans crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy, and by other trying to cross from Morocco into Spain's northern African enclaves.

Although African and European countries have been meeting to seek ways of managing such migration, there seems little prospect of a durable solution as long as the deep economic disparities persist, or until the rights of migrants, legal or "illegal," have systematic protection..

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains an analysis from Sokari Eikine of the situation of African immigrants in Spain, and a report from Human Rights Watch on human rights abuses against migrants in Libya and the failures of European Union policy on protecting migrants' rights.

Another AfricaFocus Bulletin sent out today contains excerpts from new reports by the Economic Commission on Africa and the United Nations, with more general reflections on the implications of migration for development.

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

Spain's borders strengthened after African refugees storm European frontier


Sokari Ekine*

*Sokari Ekine produces the blog Black Looks,

Pambazuka News

Last year, the UK's 'Sunday Herald Online' reported that "... thousands of strong, young men at the razor-wire frontiers of these half-forgotten Spanish possessions launched their most spectacular raid yet upon fortress Europe..." Sokari Ekine explains that what drives most Africans to abandon their countries of origin is poverty and civil strife. She argues that the response of most Western European countries to the problem is influenced by cultural prejudice against those from the so-called "Third World".

It is reported that 20,000 men, women and children have reached the shores of Spain since the beginning of the year, with over 1300 arriving two weekends ago. In eight months the numbers are three times bigger compared to last year. Those that make it to the shore, often swimming the last 100 meters, arrive half dead scattered on beaches amongst the sunbathing tourists.

In an article entitled " The Canaries, The Threatened Paradise," Spanish daily El Pais wrote: "What years ago a was slow and distant dripping of pateras (wooden boats), disembarking ten, twelve Moroccans, Senegalese, Guineanos or Gambians on beaches of Fuerteventura, has become an almost daily arrival of boats with 80, 90, the 100 or most sub-Saharans." Arguments are breaking out between the various provincial and city governments over the numbers of migrants each is willing to accept from the two landing points, the Canaries and Andalusia. So far the number of people who have been deported to their countries of origin is about 1800.

There are layers of realities around immigration in Spain and Europe. The country has benefited from cheap Moroccan and West Africa labour on construction sites and in their agricultural sector, which has resulted in a 2.6% growth in the economy over the past 10 years. It is projected that without immigrant labour it would have fallen by 0.6% annually. Similar growth figures apply for the whole of Europe.

As long as Spain continues to reap benefits from cheap labour, the Spanish government's rhetoric that it will not tolerate the continued arrival of migrants cannot be taken very seriously. The difference between today and a year ago can be explained in terms of numbers.

Another reality for the Spanish is that they are just waking up to the fact that Spain is the geographical space where Europe "almost kisses Africa" (Caryl Phillips, The European Tribe), or is it the other way around? The contrast between Spain and Africa is remarkable. The poverty existence of those who inhabit the latter and the wealthy existence of the Spanish is what prompts many to cross the Mediterranean in rickety launches. For some of these people, it is as if Spain is a promised land.

Some leave their own countries because of wars and endless conflicts. And it must be pointed out that for every migrant, illegal or legal, there are whole families - and in some cases communities - that survive on the reparations of those who make the crossing.

Spain and the EU are presently initiating a number of projects and policies in an attempt to slow down, and eventually stop, the migration of Africans to their shores. However, the polices being proposed are like using a rag to stop a dripping tap - cheap, temporary with no substance. This begs the question: are these policies aimed at reducing the numbers or spreading out the arrivals rather than stopping immigration altogether?

A Spanish NGO is opening a school in Senegal for 800 students. The aim is to educate both women (who make up 50% of the school population) and men. The ultimate goal of the school is to impart skills to theses young people so that they find employment in their countries of origin, rather than be compelled to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

There are millions of young people presently trying to migrate to the North - this new policy would have to be replicated hundreds of times in countries throughout West, North and East Africa as well as South East Asia, the Middle East and beyond. The school is a positive step but the reality is that it is a bag of flour amongst a million hungry people.

In July, in a further sign of desperation, the Spanish government signed an unprecedented agreement with Senegal to allow the Guardia Civil to patrol Senegalese waters to prevent migrants from leaving their homeland. The EU is planning and funding a series of transit camps across the continent and North Africa (from Ukraine to Libya) as part of a holistic "system of control" along with the Schengen agreement, the closing of the two Spanish enclaves in Morocco, Ceuta and Melilla, that will effectively "barbed wire" Europe.

The contradiction is that many European countries such as Britain and Spain are in desperate need of increased migration due to falling birthrates and emigration of their own indigenous citizens. There are some 4 million Spanish people working abroad and only 2 million foreigners in Spain. The way around the need for migrant labour - professional, skilled and unskilled - is to present "legal" immigration in terms of economics and meeting temporary needs, whilst using asylum seekers and refugees as a way of rejecting "illegal" migration on ethnic and nationalistic grounds.

There is no doubt that Spanish and European immigration policies have a strong racial element. Are these new policies directed towards stopping African migrants, a response to the availability of cheap labour from Romania and Bulgaria? It is important to note that these two countries are soon going to be joining EU.

I do not think Spain has reached saturation point in its need for cheap labour but now African people are having to compete for jobs with Eastern European people who are also arriving in large numbers.

Obviously the lure of hard cash made in Spain drives the migrants to risk their lives (often repeatedly) to reach Europe. One of the worst tragedies started last Christmas, when about 53 Senegalese, most from the village of Casamance, left by boat from Cabo Verde to the Canaries. The boat was relatively large but had no cover or shade. There appears to have been some chaos around the departure of the boat as apparently the Spaniard in charge jumped ship at the last minute. It is reported that five of the Senegalese also left the boat and another got scared after the boat set off and jumped out and swam back to shore.

The boat is thought to have passed Mauritania but when it reached Nuadibu (Nuadhibou, Mauritania) there was a storm and the passengers lost control of the boat. They then started to call friends and family. One of the people they called was a Spanish pirate. A few hours later they were rescued by another boat which towed them to the middle of the ocean and then abandoned them. They only had 40 litres of fuel, which ran out, and, as if this was not enough, they had to cope with the storms and high seas of the Atlantic.

It is reported that there were a series of storms, with one approximately every ten days, and high winds pushed the boat towards Barbados over a four-month period. The people died of hunger and thirst with bodies being thrown overboard one by one as they died.

There are many West Africans who have been able to create a successful life in Spain and elsewhere in Europe but also many who remain impoverished and vulnerable. Interestingly, I was fortunate enough to have a chat recently with a person who arrived by boat two months ago from Mauritania and had been sent to Granada from the Canaries by the government. He had it all worked out that he would be working on a building site and would have his papers in two years. Needless to say, there is very little chance for this person to get papers in two years. Most probably, he will be exploited and got rid of when he no longer serves his purpose.

In Granada, there is a noticeable increase in the numbers of mostly Senegalese men on the streets compared to a year ago. I mentioned this to my Senegalese hair braider who has resided in Granada for the past five years. She replied, "There are too many coming today. Before we were not many. Now there are too many and there is nothing for them to do, the only source of income open to them is to sell CDs. That is not a life."

In terms of legal rights and status, migrants can be divided into three groups: the educated elite and experts, who are subject to very few restrictions and social disadvantages; the mass of migrants who usually seek seasonal work, whose rights are severely restricted and whose situation is characterised by poor working conditions, high unemployment, and poor living conditions; and "illegal aliens" who are needed on the labour market, but are politically excluded and have no rights whatsoever.

The irony is that only 30 years ago thousands of seasonal Spanish migrants, especially from Andalusia, spent their summers working in northern Europe, Germany and France mainly picking fruit, but also working on building sites and as casual labourers, just like the Moroccans and West Africans are doing in Spain today. In those days the borders were open and skin colour was not an issue. It is interesting how far international relations have deteriorated, but most importantly, it is remarkable how the state of affairs seems to be influenced by cultural prejudice against those from the so-called "Third World".

Libya: Migrants Abused, But Europe Turns Blind Eye

EU Countries Must Press Libya to Protect Migrants, Asylum Seekers, Refugees

Human Rights Watch

(Rome, September 13, 2006) The Libyan government subjects migrants, asylum seekers and refugees to serious human rights abuses, including beatings, arbitrary arrests and forced return, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The European Union is currently negotiating joint naval patrols with Libya to block migration. But EU members, including the frontline country of Italy, have failed to insist that Libya protect the rights of the hundreds of thousands of foreigners in the country. The 135-page report, "Stemming the Flow: Abuses Against Migrants, Asylum Seekers and Refugees," documents how Libyan authorities have arbitrarily arrested undocumented foreigners, mistreated them in detention, and forcibly returned them to countries where they could face persecution or torture, such as Eritrea and Somalia. From 2003 to 2005, the government repatriated roughly 145,000 foreigners, according to official Libyan figures.

"Libya is not a safe country for migrants, asylum seekers and refugees," said Bill Frelick, director of refugee policy for Human Rights Watch. "The European Union is working with Libya to block these people from reaching Europe rather than helping them to get the protection they need."

Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of people have come to Libya, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, either to stay in the country or to travel through it to Europe. Many of the foreigners came for economic reasons, but some fled their home countries due to persecution or war. Once welcomed as cheap labor, sub-Saharan Africans in Libya now face tightened immigration controls, detention and deportation.

A persistent problem is physical abuse at the time of arrest, Human Rights Watch found. Foreigners who had spent time in Libya also reported abuse in detention, including beatings, overcrowding, substandard conditions, lack of access to a lawyer, and limited information about pending deportations.

In three cases, witnesses told Human Rights Watch that physical abuse by security forces led to a detained foreigner's death. Three interviewees also said security officials threatened women detainees with sexual violence. While detention conditions have improved in recent years, the evidence suggests that many of these abuses persist.

Some interviewees told Human Rights Watch that they saw or experienced police corruption during arrest or in detention. After a bribe, security officials let detainees go or allowed them to escape.

The Libyan government maintains that the arrests of undocumented foreigners are necessary for public order, and that the security forces carry them out in accordance with the law. Some border guards and police officers have used excessive force, officials told Human Rights Watch, but those isolated incidents were punished by the state.

According to government statistics, roughly 600,000 foreigners live and work legally in Libya, a country of about 5.3 million people. But between 1 and 1.2 million foreigners are in Libya without proper documentation, placing a strain on resources and infrastructure.

An overarching problem is Libya's refusal to introduce an asylum law or procedure. Libya has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the government makes no attempt to identify refugees or others in need of international protection. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has a Tripoli office but no formal working arrangement with the government.

Some Libyan officials told Human Rights Watch that the country does not offer asylum because none of the foreigners in the country need protection. Others were more candid, and told Human Rights Watch that they fear offering asylum when the government is trying to reduce the number of foreigners. If Libya provided the opportunity for asylum, foreigners "would come like locusts," one top official bluntly said.

"The Libyan government says it does not deport refugees," Frelick said. "But without an asylum law or procedure, how can a person who fears persecution submit a claim? Who would review that claim and on what basis?"

Human Rights Watch interviewed 56 migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, both in Libya and Italy for the report. Of these people, 17 had received refugee status at the time of the interview, either from UNHCR or the Italian government. Thirteen others were waiting for the Italian response to their claims.

The report also documents the treatment of foreigners in the Libyan criminal justice system. Foreigners in Libya reported police violence and violations of due process, including torture and unfair trials. Sub-Saharan Africans in particular face hostility from a xenophobic host population, expressed in blanket accusations of criminality, verbal and physical attacks, harassment and extortion. Top Libyan officials blame foreigners for rising crime and health concerns such as HIV/AIDS.

A large section of the report examines the migration and asylum policies of the European Union, which is cooperating closely with Libya on migration control, but not taking adequate regard for the rights of migrants or the need to protect refugees and others at risk of abuse on return to their home countries.

Italy, the country most affected by migration from Libya, egregiously flouted international law under the recent government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Human Rights Watch said. In 2004 and 2005, the government expelled more than 2,800 migrants and quite possibly refugees and others in need of international protection back to Libya, where the Libyan government sent them to their countries of origin. At times, the authorities collectively expelled large groups without a proper screening of possible refugee claims.

The Italian government denied Human Rights Watch access to the main detention center for people coming from Libya on Lampedusa island, but eyewitnesses reported unhygienic conditions, overcrowding and physical abuse by guards.

In a positive development, the current government of Romano Prodi has said it will not expel individuals to countries that have not signed the Refugee Convention, including Libya. International organizations have been allowed regular access to the Lampedusa facility since this year, and the current government formed a commission to investigate conditions at immigration detention centers around the country.

"The Prodi government took a welcome step by halting collective expulsions and recognizing that Libya is not safe for return," Frelick said. "Now it should ensure that everyone who arrives in Italy or is intercepted at sea gets a proper chance to submit an asylum claim."

To read the Human Rights Watch report, "Stemming the Flow: Abuses Against Migrants, Asylum Seekers and Refugees," please see:

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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