The D – Day Package

11 September 2006

The D – Day Package

By Gwynne Dyer

“More people have died between Africa and our coasts than in the Lebanon,” said Manuel Barroso, president of the European Union, in Brussels last week-end. “The massive arrival of illegal immigrants to the EU, mainly to the Spanish, Italian and Maltese coasts, is a European problem and requires a European effort.” But the effort hasn’t been very impressive.

In Senegal, they call it the D-Day Package, after the Normandy landings in World War Two. For between $700 and $1000 (a year’s wages in Senegal), you get packed into an open boat that will cross at least 600 miles (1,000 km.) of open ocean, along with anything between 60 and 150 other illegal migrants.

If the boat doesn’t founder in a storm or get lost — one washed up on the far side of the Atlantic in Barbados early this year with only dessicated corpses aboard — then after one to two weeks out of sight of land you will be deposited on the beaches of the Canary Islands, Spain’s southernmost islands. Welcome to the European Union.

In the first week-end of September, over 1,300 Africans stumbled ashore past horrified tourists on the Canary Islands’ beaches, and the number is going up fast. Since the land route into Europe via the Spanish enclaves on Morocco’s northern coast was closed with electrified fences last year, most illegal migration to Spain has shifted south to the far more dangerous sea route to the Canaries.

Over 23,000 illegal would-be immigrants from Africa have landed in the Canaries so far this year, five times last year’s total. Four hundred and ninety bodies have already been fished out of the seas around the Canaries this year, but the real toll is far higher because many more boats vanish far from shore. At least as many people are now drowning on the way to the Canaries as die each year trying to walk across the desert from Mexico and enter the United States.

The sea passage across the Mediterranean to Malta and to Italy’s southernmost islands is shorter and less stormy, but the boats are even flimsier and the loss of life may be equally great. All across its southern edges, the European Union is under siege from desperate African economic migrants, and it has been very slow to react.

Spanish and Italian law has no effective way of dealing with the migrants, who come from over a dozen different countries across West Africa. Illegal immigrants crossing the US-Mexican border come from different countries, too, but the US just sends all the ones it catches back to Mexico: 1.1 million out of an estimated 1.6-2.0 million who tried to cross last year. EU countries have few similar deals with African countries, and in any case most of the immigrants refuse to reveal which country they are from, so it becomes legally impossible to send them back.

More than 90 percent of the migrants who make it to the Canaries are flown out to mainland Spain after a few weeks in detention camps — and then, after forty days, the Spanish authorities are legally obliged to release them. So they are turned out on the street with a sandwich, no money, and a piece of paper requesting that they leave Spain. Oddly, few of them comply.

Much the same happens in Italy — and once on the streets, the migrants are free to travel without further checks to France, Germany, even as far as Finland, because the Schengen system has abolished internal border controls between most EU members. The countries further north are losing patience with how the front-line countries are dealing with this problem, especially since Spain made illegal immigration even more attractive last year by granting work permits and residence papers to 700,000 illegal migrants who were already inside the country.

One well-meant EU policy tries to keep Africans at home by creating jobs where they live now — the EU will give $23 billion for that purpose between 2008 and 2013 — but there is an almost bottomless reservoir of potential migrants in West Africa. Even a well-run country like Senegal has 40 percent unemployment, and half its population is under eighteen. It gets by mainly because more than a quarter of its eleven million people live abroad, and the remittances they send home account for 9 percent of the country’s GDP. Senegal must pretend to cooperate in curbing the migration, but that’s not really in its interest.

“There is no concept of maritime frontiers in the EU regulations,” complained Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos last week, but there probably will be soon. And it CAN be done — aerial and maritime surveillance to detect where the boats carrying the migrants leave from, naval ships to intercept them and turn them back while still close to shore — though it requires more resources than Spain, Italy and Malta can muster by themselves.

It almost certainly will be done. Stopping illegal immigration is a question of political will, and there is no business lobby in the EU that obstructs effective border controls in order to maintain the inflow of cheap illegal labour, as there is in the United States. It just takes a long time to get anything done when there are 25 countries involved.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 10. (“If the boat…Union”; and “One…interest”)