How Spain halted the flow of migrants from Mauritania to the Canary Islands

Economic aid, diplomacy and joint police action have helped stop the people traffickers

Francisco Peregil
Fishing boats unload their catches in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott.
Fishing boats unload their catches in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott.Mey Dudin (DPA)

The Europeans to be found in Nouadhibou are there for work, and rarely bring their families with them. Mauritania’s economic capital and the second city of this vast Saharan nation on Africa’s west coast, Nouadhibou suffers from frequent power cuts, hasn’t a single cinema, concert hall theater or bar (alcohol is banned throughout the country), has no decent schools, and the only hospital lacks even a rabies vaccine.

But to Africans looking to make their way to Europe, Nouadhibou’s location 800 kilometers south of the Canary Islands makes it an attractive place. Which explains why the EU and Spanish authorities keep a very close eye on the thousands of small fishing boats moored here. In 2006, when Morocco began cracking down on illegal immigration, the traffic in people seeking a new life in Europe moved south to Mauritania and Senegal, from where Spanish territory could be reached within five or six days.

In 2008, 108 rickety boats reached the Canaries from Mauritania; so far this year, not one has arrived

The sea crossing is dangerous, but that hasn’t stopped more than 31,500 people succeeding in making the journey to the Canary Islands in recent years. But as suddenly as the exodus started, it has stopped. In 2008, 108 rickety boats reached the Canaries from Mauritania; so far this year, not one has arrived. It’s not easy to explain how the flood of people has come to a halt, but part of the answer is to be found in Nouadhibou.

Mauritania is about twice the size of Spain, but has a population of just 3.5 million. The number of people living in Nouadhibou, whose economy depends on the fishing industry, varies between 180,000 and 300,000 – there are no reliable figures.

In 2008, the Spanish police undertook a bold initiative to try to stop people taking to the seas to reach Spain: it sent a team of five police officers to train their Mauritanian counterparts. A further 25 Civil Guards then joined them, working with six more local officers. Since then they have operated as a single unit.

The team is led by Chief Inspector Ignacio Rico. He says the key to containing the crisis was persuading Mauritania and Senegal to accept repatriations, while at the same time introducing tough new laws imposing prison sentences of up to five years on anybody involved in trafficking migrants.

The head of the Mauritanian team working with the Spanish police says the situation is under control, “but we haven’t solved anything in the long term”

As a result, the trade collapsed. The Spanish authorities have stayed on however, and are backed up by a Civil Guard helicopter, along with two 30-meter patrol boats and a further two 15-meter vessels. But Captain Pablo Lorenzo, who has been here since 2006 believes that the only way to prevent people from taking to the seas again is by maintaining a very visible presence. “You have to remember that the Canary Islands is just five days away by boat, whereas if you follow the route up from Central Africa that ends in Libya it can take up to a month to reach the European coast.”

Carlos Rodríguez, a Civil Guard attaché at the Spanish embassy in Mauritania, adds: “If instead of our patrol boats we just had a semi-rigid speedboat, do you think the situation would be like it is now? In countries like this, mistakes are costly. If you can build up trust and create something that works, the best thing to do is to hold on to it.”

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Inspector Ahmel Khaled, who heads the Mauritanian team working with the Spanish authorities, says the situation is under control, “but we haven’t solved anything in the long term. Nouadhibou is a crossroads, with people coming and going all the time. There are thousands of people who have come here with one aim: to earn enough money to get to Europe. They’re just waiting for their chance.”

Ahmel Khaled and Ignacio Rico spend most of their time gathering intelligence. The Spanish team has provided its Mauritanian counterpart with the technical assistance it needs to monitor the activities of the fishing fleet. At the same time, the country has begun returning people from neighboring countries with no paperwork. In 2013, it expelled 713 people, a figure that rose to 6,463 last year.

The Spanish and Mauritanians have created a network of informants that keeps them up to date with what is going on along the coastline near Nouadhibou. But winning their trust has not been easy.

At the same time, the country’s respective governments have begun working closer. But there have been difficulties along the way: in 2008, democratically elected president Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi was overthrown by General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, ostensibly for reaching out to Islamist groups. The Spanish foreign ministry initially condemned the coup, but praised Abdel Aziz when he held and won free and fair elections in 2009. Since then, the Mauritanian authorities have worked closely with Spain.

Between 2007 and 2011, Spain invested around €150 million in Mauritania

In return, Spain has provided the country with generous aid and economic cooperation. Between 2007 and 2011, Spain invested around €150 million in Mauritania, says Francisco Sancho, who until recently headed up Spanish state foreign aid organization AECID's operation in the country. Among the initiatives Spain has funded is a €5 million project to distribute frozen fish to 126 stores throughout the country. Diplomacy, money and police cooperation: for the moment, the formula is working. But more and more people from Africa want to get to Europe.

Working on the reception desk of one of Nouadhibou’s best hotels is a 25-year-old man who lost his parents and his younger brother when an overcrowded boat sank in the Mediterranean in April with the loss of 900 lives. He was supposed to be aboard, but it was too crowded and he was told by the traffickers that he would be able to travel on the next vessel out of Libya. He was able to evade police raids, but decided at that point that he would forget trying to get to Europe. Five months later, he says that he has no future in Mauritania, and is trying to save as much as he can of his €120 monthly salary to make the crossing, although this time he says it will be from Tangiers. He has no doubts about his final destination: Germany.

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