"To these people, our crisis is nothing"

Growing numbers of Africans are risking their lives crossing the Strait of Gibraltar Clandestine immigration is on the rise again, mostly in flimsy rubber dinghies

Migrants in a rubber dinghy in the Strait of Gibraltar last November, waiting to be rescued.
Migrants in a rubber dinghy in the Strait of Gibraltar last November, waiting to be rescued.MARCOS MORENO / EL PAÍS

The desire for a better life is blind to austerity and six million unemployed, and getting to Spain remains the dream of many people in Africa. Just when it looked like the numbers of people making their way across the Strait of Gibraltar hidden under trucks aboard ferries, or packed into children's inflatable dinghies was on the decline, they have shot up again.

Data for 2012 collected by the immigration authorities in the port of Algeciras - which is just 14 kilometers across from Morocco's northern coastline - show that more and more people are trying to make the crossing.

Helena Maleno has been working for the last 11 years for Caminando Fronteras, an NGO that helps migrants. "It is not difficult to buy an inflatable boat, even if the Moroccans have put the prices up."

This flimsy means of transport allows those seeking to make a new life in Spain to do so without paying the networks that control the crossings. "People know that these inflatable craft are fragile, but they have no money to pay the people traffickers, and the need to flee their countries leads them to put their lives at risk," Maleno explains.

The crisis affecting the whole of Africa is forcing many to look to Europe"

Typically, those making the crossing are men and women aged between 25 and 30, usually with a good education and able to speak up to three languages. They want to work, a better life, and to leave behind the famine and war that in many cases afflict their countries of origin.

"The crisis that has hit the whole of Africa, as well as wars in places such as Mali, is forcing many people to look to Europe," says Maleno, adding: "The pressure from the Moroccan police is tremendous. These people are hiding out in forests, begging, locked in safe houses, and living on rice and flour."

Juan Cisneros, the Algeciras district attorney, says he understands that despite the crisis in Spain, Africans still want to make the journey. "To a lot of people, our crisis is nothing," he notes.

The city's immigration department is run by José Luis Jaudenes, who says that in 2011 3,141 people were held in the Algeciras internment center. In 2012 that figure rose to 5,000. There has also been an increase in the number of minors, between 13 and 17 years old, who usually enter Spanish territory by hiding underneath trucks or buses.

Catching the people who organize the human traffic across the Strait is not easy

According to SIVE, the network of radar stations along the coast of Andalusia, there has been a fourfold increase in clandestine immigration in the first three months of 2013, compared to the previous year.

But the Algeciras immigration department says that finding and catching the people who organize much of the human traffic across the Strait is not easy, and this despite close cooperation with the Moroccan authorities.

The police say that the mafias take advantage of Spanish law, which allows pregnant women to stay, for example. The Spanish maritime authorities say that they have received calls from Moroccan territory informing them of vessels in trouble in Spanish waters.

But the noteworthy trend, say the Spanish authorities, is the number of people trying to make it across from Morocco on their own, or in small groups using inflatable dinghies that are meant for use in a swimming pool.

The Human Rights Association of Andalusia (APDHA) has been working with migrants for years, and says that 15 percent of those attempting to cross the Strait in 2012 used these kind of vessels; this year they make up 90 percent of crossings.

Law criminalizes those helping migrants, say NGOs

JOSEBA ELOLA, Madrid

NGOs, human rights groups and several city councils, as well as the regional government of Aragon, have launched a campaign to force the Justice Ministry to change the wording of a proposed reform to the Penal Code stating that "anyone who intentionally helps non-European Union nationals without the proper documents to remain in Spain, thus violating the laws governing the entry or stay of foreigners, is subject to a fine or six months to two years in prison."

Article 318 of the Penal Code adds that anyone caught helping undocumented immigrants to enter or make their way across Spain could face the same charges.

Public prosecutors would decide on a case-by-case basis whether to drop charges in instances where the aim was clearly to provide humanitarian assistance.

The groups taking part in the campaign say that the decision to press charges should not be left in the hands of prosecutors, saying that the new law should specify that people who were merely providing humanitarian assistance would be legally exempt.

The proposed reform of the criminal code was approved by the Cabinet in October 2012, but has not yet been brought before Congress.

Sense of hospitality

In response, in December 2012, lawyers, judges, university professors, priests and other citizens came together in the campaign Salvemos la hospitalidad (Let's save hospitality) to raise awareness of the government's proposed law and its likely impact.

So far, cities such as Seville, Málaga, Barakaldo in Vizcaya, and Vila-real have all lent their formal backing to the protest.

"This proposal is barbaric," says José María Tomás y Tío, a leading judge from Valencia, adding: "It is a flagrant breach of Article 1 of the Declaration of Human Rights."

The Justice Ministry argues that giving a migrant a ride or sheltering them will not be a crime, and that any strictly humanitarian act will not be punished.

Mikel Araguás of Andalucía Acoge (Andalusia Welcomes) says that the principal problem with the government's proposed legislation is that it "creates the idea in people's minds that irregular immigrants are the cause of crime."