← Back to portfolio

Patrols off West Africa target would-be migrants

Published on

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) - Off West Africa, a band of green-shorted Spanish military men peer down from their gleaming white patrol boat into a long wooden canoe -- searching for illegal migrants. 

But the 25 or so men in the canoe are stripped to their shorts and carrying little more than fishing nets. It's unlikely they're bound for Spain's Canary Islands, the closest entry to Europe.

"They don't have a lot of fuel, and they're not dressed for it -- for the cold," says Amadou Diouf, one of three members of Senegal's military traveling with the Spanish crew. He shouts back and forth with the fishermen in their native Wolof and the patrol moves on. No migrants here.

The unit of Spain's Guardia Civil has been doing these daily runs along Senegal's coast for months now, sometimes going north toward Mauritania, sometimes south toward Gambia. It's one of many vessels Spain has sent to West Africa in an attempt to stem the tide of illegal migrants risking dangerous ocean voyages to the Canary Islands.

The effort -- which also includes helicopter surveillance and foot patrols on the beaches -- has caught thousands since the summer. But many more have arrived on the shores of the Canary Islands, suggesting that the increased security has not deterred many desperate for a chance at a better life.

Senegal's Captain Mohamadou Moustapha Sylla, spokesman for the joint task force, said officials were confident the patrols have kept some from considering the trip.

The patrols last intercepted a boat in late December and since then "it's been calm," says Sylla. "No boats. ... They're definitely starting to get discouraged."

Frontex, the European Union border agency that has worked with the Spanish government on patrols, intercepted 3,887 people along the African coast between August and December, according to spokeswoman Daniela Munzbergova. During the same period, 14,572 migrants arrived in the Canary Islands.

Munzbergova said monthly arrivals decreased dramatically over the course of the operation, dropping from more than 6,000 in September to about 1,360 in November.

But Diouf says the decrease can't necessarily be attributed to the patrols. He explains that they'd be surprised to find many migrant boats this time of year -- the chilly winter nights make it more dangerous to attempt a trip in which people die of hypothermia even in the hot season.

Diego Acosta, the ship's mechanic, says the day's calm sea also makes it less likely they'd intercept a migrant boat. He expects that on calm days boats trying to evade detection tend to go farther out. When the waters are rough they hug the coast.

Last year saw a surge in migrants taking the sea route from West Africa to the Canaries. About 31,000 people made it in 2006 -- five times the figure from 2005.

Many reasons have been given for the surge, from fewer employment options in a region where one-time economic engine Ivory Coast has been weakened by war, to a tightening on legal migration that has forced people to find other routes, to a border clampdown by Morocco that may have simply moved an existing problem further south.

Meanwhile, security measures along the West African coast are being strengthened or extended.

Frontex's operation started Aug. 11 and was only supposed to last nine weeks but was extended until mid-December. Munzbergova said the agency plans to restart the multi-country operation "in the coming weeks." In the interim, Spain is continuing its patrols under agreements with local governments.
The first operation cost euro3.2 million (US$4.1 million), most of which was funded by Frontex, with Spain also contributing. Finland, Italy and Portugal also took part in the operation.

The men on the fishing boats don't seem to mind the scrutiny. They smile and wave at the Spaniards, shouting greetings in Wolof. And, as the patrol pulls away from one fishing canoe: "Take us with you to Spain!"